Your front desk staff: they’re the face of your practice to every patient who walks through the door or calls your phone number. They are the front lines, responsible for everything from greeting patients to managing patient flow to collecting copayments.
The performance of front desk staff directly affects your ability to retain patients — and thus your bottom line, according to practice management expert Elizabeth Woodcock. Yet they’re often among the most overlooked employees in a practice.
It may be an overstatement to say that the ability of your front desk staff to maintain an efficient, friction less, and welcoming waiting room experience will make or break your practice, but maybe not by much. Indeed, regardless of a patient’s relationship with their doctor, if the front office staff is unpleasant to deal with, that could be one reason why they may consider changing practices.
You’re probably already aware of some of the more obvious challenges faced by your front desk staff — managing inbound phone calls, scheduling, and greeting patients — but your staff are also dealing with issues that you may not have considered. What else are they facing?
Managing patient emotions
A study in the journal Social Science and Medicine found that a “significant portion” of front desk staff’s work involved managing patients’ and families’ emotions, ranging from “confirming a prescription with an angry patient, to congratulating a new mother, to consoling a man whose wife had just died, to helping a mentally ill patient make an appointment.”
Handling call volume and maintaining phone etiquette
Your front desk handles dozens (maybe more than 100) calls a day, and it’s impossible to know how time-consuming an individual call will be. A patient may be calling to confirm the time of an appointment (a less than five-minute call), update their insurance information, or reschedule an appointment. Patients also ask questions about their doctor’s instructions, which may not be something the front desk can answer — but those staff still have to field the calls.
Much has been written (and many phone system solutions developed) to help practices manage their incoming calls and maintain exceptional phone etiquette. Using a patient portal can help significantly reduce call volume by enabling patients to get many of their questions answered online. But few practices have robustly embraced portals. Another way to temper call volume is to offer patients other ways to book, reschedule, or cancel appointments (i.e. an online appointment system or scheduling app).
Managing patient wait times and patient flow
It’s simple: patients hate waiting to see the doctor. According to a survey by Consumer Reports, long waits were among the top 10 gripes that patients have about their doctors. Managing that frustration isn’t so simple.
That’s because it’s not just patient frustration over wait times that receptionists must balance — it’s the needs of the doctors who are juggling increasingly packed schedules and who need help choreographing the flow of patients from the waiting room to the exam room. From using techniques like keeping waiting room patients informed about delays to referring to “scripts” that help guide service during common challenging patient scenarios, receptionists are constantly on their toes keeping patients calm and balancing the flow of traffic somewhere between a trickle and a tsunami.
Receptionists are responsible, at least in the immediate, for fielding and responding to complaints about issues ranging from long hold times to the quality of care they’ve received. Balancing empathy for the patient’s situation and determining how best to address it is a drain on energy and time, no matter how experienced a receptionist may be.
In sum, your front desk staff are the unsung heroes of your practice, and they’re key to maintaining efficiency and productivity as well as excellent patient relationships. Don’t forget to spend time acknowledging and evaluating the challenges they face. The effort you spend managing your front desk will pay off handsomely.