Cynthia Molina


At the heart of patient-centered care is the need to structure the delivery of health care around interdisciplinary teams that promote interprofessional competence.  It also requires an environment where team members strive to practice at the top of their professional license or training. As delivery of patientcare makes the transition to team-based models, every team member is crucial. That includes doctors, nurses, physician assistants, medical assistants, and just as important, front desk receptionists. 

The front desk staff in a medical practice is a role often unrecognized but one that has important implications for care coordination, access, delivery of patient-centered care, and the ethical nature of primary care. It is imperative that the front office staff be considered fully-engaged members of a health care team, with commensurate expectations that they develop ownership of a patient panel and participate in quality improvement initiatives. 

Front desk receptionists often know who their patients are when they check in, especially those who come in multiple times during the year. They are aware of why patients are coming in and are familiar with the various tasks and services that are provided within the practice. These individuals also serve as the face of the care team and are encouraged to provide great customer service, answer any questions from patients, or connect them to those who may assist them.

While there has been significant research on the role of doctors and other clinicians in the care of patients and their families, little attention has been paid to those individuals who make up the very front lines of health care. In almost every clinical practice, office receptionists are the first people patients see. In addition to the administrative work and checking patients in, front desk receptionists are often involved in emotionally challenging environments. Within an hour, they can go from confirming a prescription with a disgruntled patient, to congratulating a new mother, to consoling a man whose wife has just passed away, to helping a mentally ill patient schedule an appointment.

As a former practice manager who has supervised front desk receptionists, I have witnessed firsthand how valuable it is for patients to have a familiar face when they walk in and how much this can facilitate care coordination and patient-centeredness. 

We once had a patient come in for her regular diabetic check. The patient, who had established a relationship with the front desk receptionist over the years, informed her that she had lost her job and her mother within the same month. The front desk receptionist who comforted the patient handed her a depression screening with her other registration paperwork.  She asked her to complete and provide the depression screening to the Medical Assistant when she was brought back to the exam room. While the patient was waiting for her appointment, the front desk receptionist walked to the back and notified the patient’s provider and medical assistant of the patient’s situation. When the provider and MA reviewed the depression screening (which scored low), they were able to efficiently connect the patient with behavioral health services. They also introduced community resources, such as a local food bank, and services to help with unemployment and the cost of her medications. The relationship with the front desk receptionist allowed for this regular diabetic visit to be more meaningful and patient-centered. It also provided more information to the provider than he would have normally obtained from this patient.

The role of a front desk receptionist is often limited to  insurance verification, checking patients in, and updating demographics. However, it is important to fully incorporate these staff members into the care team. This can include training on depression screenings, education about services offered in the practice, electronic quality health measures that the practice is trying to improve, and inclusion in team huddles and quality improvement efforts. This can truly be a game changer in how practices provide care to their patients. 

For more information on how to effectively engage front desk receptionists in quality improvement efforts through one-on-one meetings, orientation and training, please contact HealthTeamWorks.

~ Cynthia Molina, MNM
Healthcare Learning Faculty/Practice Facilitator