Patient abuse towards medical receptionists rife

Medical receptionist

Verbal and physical abuse of medical receptionists by patients is rife, and causing lasting harm according to new research from the University of Queensland (UQ).


The research found zero tolerance approaches and visible safety measures like clear acrylic barriers and lockable doors at reception areas were ineffective deterrents in reducing patient aggression.

UQ’s Centre for Community Health and Wellbeing led a review of 20 studies across five countries, analysing aggression faced by receptionists in medical clinics and doctor’s surgeries.

The findings showed receptionists were frequently subjected to verbal abuse from patients such as shouting, swearing, accusatory language and racist and sexist insults. They also faced armed and unarmed physical violence.

“Patient aggression towards medical receptionists is so frequent it’s become accepted as a normal workplace hazard, which is extremely concerning,” said lead researcher Dr Fiona Willer.

The research found the behaviour severely affected the receptionists’ health and wellbeing.

“They reported workplace stress, absenteeism, burnout, lasting psychological trauma and even physical harm,” Dr Willer said.

“Only a small proportion received professional counselling, and unfortunately coordinated support for reception staff was generally lacking.”

Medical receptionists were on the frontline and often in difficult situations, UQ researcher Dr David Chua said.

“They are managing patients in a variety of emotional states and can become the target of their frustrations and aggression, often for things that are entirely out of their control.

“Patient aggression causes lasting harm to the reception staff and can also affect other patients in the waiting room.”

The research found some strategies appeared to help reduce aggressive patient behaviour, including staff training and reducing points of frustration for patients, like simplifying appointment scheduling.

However other methods were ineffective in deterring aggression, including as ‘zero tolerance’ campaigns and visible safety measures like clear acrylic barriers and lockable doors at reception areas.

“Medical receptionists provide an essential function in the healthcare system and deserve safe working conditions for their own wellbeing and for the community,” Dr Willer said.

“While there are some strategies that can help deter or alleviate patient aggression, we need to look more broadly at why the behaviour occurs to stop it once and for all.”

The research is published in Family Medicine and Community Health.

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