Medical receptionists bear brunt of patient aggression: Study

Matt Woodley

7/07/2023 3:32:06 PM

New research has found general practice admin staff are frequently subjected to verbal abuse, as well as physical violence, causing lasting harm.

Patient abusing receptionist.
Receptionists are frequently subjected to verbal abuse from patients such as shouting, swearing, accusatory language and racist and sexist insults.

A new University of Queensland (UQ) meta-analysis of 20 studies from five countries, including Australia, has revealed the breadth of abuse and patient aggression experienced by medical receptionists.
The research, led by UQ’s Centre for Community Health and Wellbeing, found verbal and physical abuse of medical receptionists by patients is not only rife, but also causing lasting harm.

‘Our findings show receptionists are frequently subjected to verbal abuse from patients such as shouting, swearing, accusatory language and racist and sexist insults,’ co-author Dr Fiona Willer said.

‘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.’
Quantitative studies that enquired about whether receptionists had ever received verbal abuse from patients during their career show that it occurs at ‘near-ubiquitous levels’ ranging from 82% to 99%, which is supported by a receptionist quoted in an Australian study reviewed as part of the analysis.
‘We get abused probably nearly every day, verbally, by different people,’ they said. ‘I think you can only take so much before you’re actually going to explode.’

The research also found that exposure to this behaviour severely affects 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.’
RACGP Vice President and Queensland Chair Dr Bruce Willett previously told newsGP that violence and ‘bad behaviour’ are on the rise, with unemployment, a growing drug problem, and societal change resulting from COVID-19 fuelling the problem – particularly in rural, remote and regional areas.
‘This sort of behaviour is never acceptable under any circumstance,’ he said.
‘In my working life I have seen a move from sedating drugs of abuse like heroin, which simply put people to sleep, to stimulating drugs like ice, which tend to fuel psychosis and violent behaviour.’
The paper’s co-author, Dr David Chua, says medical receptionists bear the brunt of abuse as they 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,’ he said.

‘Patient aggression causes lasting harm to the reception staff and can also affect other patients in the waiting room.’
This aggression can also spill out towards practitioners, with Adelaide-based GP Dr Alvin Chua getting severely injured after he intervened when a man entered his surgery and started using racial slurs against a receptionist.

The RACGP has produced resources aimed at preventing and managing patient aggression and violence, while the UQ research found staff training and reducing points of frustration for patients, such as simplifying appointment scheduling, appear to help reduce aggressive patient behaviour.

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

‘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.’

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