Kevan Christie: '˜Care navigator' is an awful job title, but it's not the worst idea out there

Few professions have a worse reputation than the much-maligned doctor's receptionist. These gatekeepers of the prescription are demonised as dragons who go out of their way to block appointments. Along with journalists and eatate agents, they're never likely to win many popularity contests.

Receptionists at GP surgeries should be able to point patients in the right direction for treatment without conversation becoming intrusive, says Kevan Christie.
Receptionists at GP surgeries should be able to point patients in the right direction for treatment without conversation becoming intrusive, says Kevan Christie.

So it’s no surprise that reports of them being trained as ‘care navigators’ - a ridiculous title - have been met with universal derision by a general public who have already made up their minds.

This has been happening in Scotland for some time, without the ‘snappy’ job title, and although an inconvenience, it is based on a commonsense approach to health provision, where a nod in the direction of the pharmacist can often solve a problem.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

A care navigators scheme is now being introduced in England, with GPs saying up to a quarter of consultations are unnecessary.

If the receptionists believe it isn’t appropriate or necessary for patients to see a GP, the caller will be told to see another healthcare professional. The key to all of this - and it’s not the worst idea - is how the receptionist handles the delicate conversations. A degree of nuance and general sympathy will go a long way to making this work.

All too often patients are having to see their local doctor for minor ailments or to order a repeat prescription because they don’t understand the system for ordering repeat drugs.

Also, the so-called “worried well” - mainly made up of middle-class professionals who experience a heightened sense of anxiety for their wellbeing when they’re not running half-marathons - expect a level of care that is simply not there. Their expectations have to become more realistic.

As for the receptionists, they’re doing what they’ve been told, even if a few take this to extremes.

They are the first line of defence in the brave new world of a multidisciplinary approach to primary care where practice nurses, pharmacists, or any other care professional are the ones the patient should really be seeing.

I’m not saying that GP’s receptionists are all sweetness and light. No doubt, years of dealing in what is effectively people’s misery can harden the best of souls and the thought of the phone ringing off the hook from 8am onwards is not the best of starts to anyone’s day.

However, if they’re from the local area and that’s the ideal in terms of community healthcare, then they can build up relationships with people who in turn may open up to a certain extent or at least give the receptionists an idea of what area their ailment is in.

They will also be able to identify serial timewasters, who are perhaps only phoning for a chat or see a visit to the doctor as part of their weekly routine.

With general practice facing huge resource and workforce pressures there is a need to look at innovative ways of delivering service.

In this respect receptionists with experience can offer patients a bit of valuable time that GPs can’t spare, thus freeing up space for the doctor to see people who really need expert medical care.

This will require a sea change in people’s attitudes but the days of automatically seeing your GP on the day with a ‘bit of a cold’ will soon be over.

It should also have the effect of making receptionists feel more valued, someone who can genuinely provide solutions rather than just answering the phone. Yes, even give them a new title - just don’t call them ‘care navigators’.