Medical receptionists bear the brunt of patient aggression

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University of Queensland research has found verbal and physical abuse of medical receptionists by patients is rife and causes lasting harm.

Dr Fiona Willer from 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.

“Our findings show receptionists are frequently subjected to verbal abuse from patients such as shouting, swearing, accusatory language and racist and sexist insults,” said Dr Willer.

“They also face 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.”

The research found the behaviour severely affected the health and well-being of receptionists.

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

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

Researcher Dr David Chua said medical receptionists are on the frontline and often in difficult situations.

“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,” said Dr Chua.

“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.

Other methods were ineffective in deterring aggression, such 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,” said Dr Willer.

“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.”