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Having to talk to receptionists about symptoms puts people off seeing GP

Being forced to discuss symptoms with practice receptionists is one of the main factors putting patients off from seeing a GP, research has suggested.

In a survey of almost 2,000 people, which looked at the commonly perceived barriers to seeing a GP, some 36.6% of men and 42.6% of women (40% overall) said that they ‘don’t like having to talk to the GP receptionist about my symptoms’.

The Cancer Research UK analysis, published in the Journal of Public Health today, also revealed that the other main barriers to seeing a GP were difficulty in getting an appointment with a particular doctor (36.5% of men and 47.5% of women reported this) or at a convenient time (40.7% of men and 44.9% of women cited this).

Patients from a lower socio-economic background were more likely to report a number of possible ‘emotional’ barriers, such as worrying about what the GP might find, having tests and talking about symptoms, the analysis found. These patients were also more likely to say they would be put off going to their GP if they couldn’t see a particular doctor.

Not wanting to be seen as someone who makes a fuss was a commonly perceived barrier to seeking help across all patient groups (35% overall).

It comes as earlier this year NHS England pledged that £45 million would be invested over five years so that every practice in the country can help their reception and clerical staff play a greater role in care navigation, signposting patients and handling clinical paperwork to free up GP time.

Commenting on the research, RCGP chair Dr Maureen Baker said: ‘While GP receptionists are valued members of the practice team and play a pivotal role in delivering patient care, we understand that our patients would prefer to speak to their family doctor about their health, especially if it is sensitive in nature.

‘With GPs making more patient consultations than ever before – 60 million more a year compared to five years ago – GP receptionists ensure the smooth running of the practice and do their best to help patients see a particular GP at a suitable time for them.

But she added that it was ‘important to remember that they are not healthcare professionals, and are not in a position to make decisions about our patients’ health’.

GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘All receptionists receive training to help ensure that when a patient calls they are given the most effective advice about what appointment they may need, but it is always made clear that are under no obligation to disclose information they are not comfortable with.’

On the issue of early cancer detection Cancer Research UK’s GP expert Dr Richard Roope said that ‘anything that might prevent people from getting their symptoms checked needs to be overcome’.

‘This may mean more emphasis on training front desk staff including receptionists to deal more sensitively with patients.’

Dr Jodie Moffat, lead author and head of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said there was ‘still more to learn about the things that may put people off going to their doctor, and how important they are when it comes to actually influencing behaviour’.

She added: ‘But it’s clear that a new sign or symptom, or something that has stayed or got worse over time, needs to be checked out by a GP. The chances of surviving cancer are greater when it’s caught at an early stage, before it’s had a chance to spread, and seeking help sooner rather than later could make all the difference.’

The analysis, ‘Identifying anticipated barriers to help – seeking to provide earlier diagnosis of cancer in Great Britain’, forms part of Cancer Research UK’s Cancer Awareness Measure (CAM), which is a set of questions designed to reliably assess awareness of cancer among the general population.