The place of receptionists in access to primary care: Challenges in the space between community and consultation

Soc Sci Med. 2015 May:133:287-95. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.10.010. Epub 2014 Oct 5.


At the point of entry to the health care system sit general practice receptionists (GPRs), a seldom studied employment group. The place of the receptionist involves both a location within the internal geography of the clinic and a position within the primary care team. Receptionists literally 'receive' those who phone or enter the clinic, and are a critical influence in their transformation from a 'person' to a 'patient'. This process occurs in a particular space: the 'waiting room'. We explore the waiting room and its dynamics in terms of 'acceptability', an under-examined aspect of access to primary care. We ask 'How do GPRs see their role with regard to patients with complex health and social needs, in light of the spatio-temporal constraints of their working environments?' We engaged receptionists as participants to explore perceptions of their roles and their workspaces, deriving narrative data from three focus groups involving 14 GPRs from 11 practices in the Northland region of New Zealand. The study employed an adapted form of grounded theory. Our findings indicate that GPRs are on the edge of the practice team, yet carry a complex role at the frontline, in the waiting space. They are de facto managers of this space; however, they have limited agency within general practice settings, due to the constraints imposed upon them by physical and organisational structures. The agency of GPRs is most evident in their ability to shape the social dynamics of the waiting space, and to frame the health care experience as positive for people whose usual experience is marginalisation. We conclude that, if well supported, receptionists have the potential to positively influence health care acceptability, and patients' access to care.

Keywords: Acceptability; Access to healthcare; General practice; Health care spaces; New Zealand; Receptionists; Waiting rooms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Grounded Theory
  • Health Services Accessibility*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medical Receptionists*
  • Middle Aged
  • New Zealand
  • Office Management / organization & administration*
  • Office Visits
  • Primary Health Care / methods*
  • Residence Characteristics*