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NHS receptionists take the brunt of patients’ frustrations over a lack of appointments

NHS receptionists take the brunt of patients’ frustrations over a lack of appointments and long waiting times, research suggests.

A study found staff who are ‘front-of-house’ in GP surgeries, hospitals and dental clinics ‘take the flak for things that are not their fault’.

Researchers argue an inability to get an appointment in the NHS is ‘the result of funding shortages’ that are ‘beyond the receptionist’s control’. 

NHS receptionists take the brunt of patients’ frustrations over a lack of appointments (stock)

The research was carried out by Lancaster University and led by Professor Paul Baker, of the department of linguistics and English language. 

‘Rather than suggesting that receptionists need retraining or that surgeons deserve pay rises, we instead noted that feedback is very much linked to expectations and constraints around different staff roles,’ Professor Baker said.

‘So jobs that involve saving your life or delivering a new life are seen as more impressive than the more support-based work carried out by nurses and receptionists, attracting. Feedback has a role bias in other words.’ 

Reports of bullying and harassment within NHS England rose from 420 in 2013-14 to 528 in 2017-18, The Guardian reported. 

However, the incidents were not broken down according to different types of staff or who was behind the bullying, such as patients or other medics.

To understand how patients treat different members of staff in the NHS, linguists from Lancaster University analysed 228,000 comments that were posted by patients onto the NHS Choices website.

They used computer software to identify patterns in the language being posted.

Results revealed that while surgeons were described with ‘positive words’ 98 per cent of the time, doctors 96 per cent of the time and midwives 93 per cent of the time, comments about receptionists only used ‘good words’ in 57 per cent of the posts.

The findings are published in full in Professor Baker’s book The Language of Patient Feedback: A Corpus Linguistic Study of Online Health Communication (Routledge Applied Corpus Linguistics). 


The NHS defines workplace bullying as arguments, rudeness, excluding people, ignoring their contributions, unacceptable criticism and overloading people with work.

It encourages people who are feeling victimised to find an ally who they can confide in.

They should then speak to someone who can give informal advice, such as a trade union official, the HR department or their manager.

Some NHS employers are trained to help with bullying, who are known as ‘harassment advisers’.

The NHS encourages people to stay strong and not take bullying personally but rather see it as a reflection of the bully’s own weaknesses.

Talking to a bully can also make them realise how their behaviour is affecting you.

And keeping a diary of the events can help someone decide the action they take later. 

If the problem cannot be resolved informally, an official complaint should be made via an employer’s grievance procedure. 

And if the issue still persists with nothing being done to resolve it, you may want to consider legal action. This may involve going to an employment tribunal.

Source: NHS Choices 

Surgeons were frequently described as ‘outstanding’ and ‘brilliant’, while dentists were ‘the best’ and midwives ‘exceptional’.

In contrast, receptionists were labelled ‘useless’, ‘rude’, ‘unprofessional’, ‘unhelpful’, ‘arrogant’, ‘patronising’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘terrible’.

Patients were found to take it personally when the receptionists were unable to give them an immediate appointment. 

They were also put out by the front-of-house staff asking questions about their condition in order to rank the order patients are seen. 

‘In other words they are often taking the flak for things that are not their fault but actually are indicative of patient frustration at bigger systemic issues,’ Professor Baker said.

‘Fewer appointments and longer waiting times are more likely to be the result of funding shortages that are beyond the receptionist’s control.’

The dentists received overwhelmingly positive feedback due to many patients having a phobia of having their teeth being examined and anticipating pain, the researchers claim.

‘Patients are then pleasantly surprised when the experience is not painful and so they leave excellent feedback as a result of their negative expectations not being met,’ Professor Baker said.

‘While this is good for dentists, it raises a dilemma if we simply measure NHS success in terms of patient ratings. 

‘If the NHS embarked on awareness campaigns to counter fears about dentists, then more people would be likely to visit the dentist.

‘Although ultimately patients would be likely to end up being pleasantly surprised less, resulting in the amount of positive feedback around dentists perhaps going down over time.’

Results further revealed patients tend to judge NHS staff on how friendly they are, including whether they know your name, rather than their technical abilities. 

‘Some patients are likely to feel unqualified to comment on technical issues involving whether the correct decisions were made about their treatment,’ Professor Baker said.

‘[But] commenting on politeness is a typically British pastime as well as being a common feature of other types of feedback like hotels and restaurants. 

And complaints often revolve around rudeness, a lack of appointments and long waiting times. 

‘The strong focus on staff social skills suggests the NHS is actually functioning at a high level of competence but due to services being over-stretched, staff may be rushed so have less time to pay attention to social nuances,’ Professor Baker said. 

‘The longer waiting times are also indicative of a system that is showing cracks. 

‘Investment in the NHS needs to keep up with demand so that we can ensure that the NHS continues to be a highly regarded aspect of British life.’