Elizabeth Morrison

Reconstructing the Role of the Medical Receptionist: A Phenomenological Exploration of the Experiences of Women Who Work as Reception Staff in Medical Offices



Aim: This study aims to explore and understand the experiences of medical office receptionists. Receptionists in medical settings spend more time with patients than physicians when considering time in the waiting room, phone calls, patient check-in, and discharges.  Receptionists also engage in many patient care tasks that demand discretionary judgment and decision-making, including what messages to pass on to the doctor, timing of refill requests fulfillment, and emergent access to appointments. Despite this, there is little written about their experience of their work, how they consider their relationships with patients and within the larger health care team, and their perception of their impact on patients’ health and health care. This research offers an opportunity to focus on a largely invisible position in health care and to reconstruct the dominant narrative of who, and what, is considered important in health care settings.  Data, research, and methods: This study focused on six receptionists in two busy medical offices in California.  This research was qualitative, using phenomenological methodology.   Two 90-minute semi-structured interviews were conducted with each receptionist.  Observational data was also collected.  Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis was utilized to analyze the data. Social construction is an overarching philosophy that influenced all methods and analysis. Findings:  This study surfaced 6 overarching themes in the experience of the subjects, including the level of emotional labor receptionists engaged in, in managing and responding to patients anger, grief, upset and other strong feelings;  differing motivations for getting into the position as receptionists; a deep purpose the subjects articulated in their work, of helping patients; consistent experiences indicating they are on a lower rung in the medical office hierarchy of staff; important and significant impacts on patients’ health and health decisions; and significant and complex issues around race and ethnicity Significance: The findings in the overarching themes indicate receptionists perceive and report crucial influence and impact on patients’ health, including support and encouragement to follow physician recommendations, maneuverings to get selected patients into see physicians for urgent matters, while not facilitating access for others, and discretionary decision making about what messages to ensure physicians see and take action on.  This has important implications for health care settings, in considering their resourcing and support of receptionist staff.   The theme around unpaid and unacknowledged emotional labor has implications for social justice communities, feminist discourse communities, and health care organizations.   Lastly, the findings around a receptionists’ sense of purpose in their work and identification as a primary influence on patients’ health behaviors and knowledge have implications for the larger healthcare field.