In Praise of the Veterinary Receptionist

One of the most important people you will encounter in your veterinarian’s office is the receptionist who greets you when you walk through the door.

This is especially true for doctors like me who work in the veterinary referral industry. We do not evaluate healthy puppies or kittens, nor do we typically find our schedule filled with routine wellness visits. Our patients were previously diagnosed with some disorder or disease process, necessitating referral to our facility for further diagnostic and/or treatment options. Therefore, owners seek care from specialists because their pet is experiencing a problem with their health.

When owners cross through the entrance to our hospital, they are filled with anxiety and apprehension, and their emotional turmoil is palpable from the moment of their arrival. The receptionist is the first person they will meet and the quality of this initial interaction can set the tone for not only the remainder of their first visit, but for all subsequent interactions.

My goal is for each owner I encounter to feel important, comforted, relaxed, and as if they are they only pet on my appointment schedule for the day. If a receptionist can correctly identify the patient by name (and gender), this seemingly insignificant gesture often means a great deal to a distraught pet parent hoping for even just a tiny sense of reassurance.

In many referral hospitals, receptionists are also the people given the duty of answering all incoming calls. They are expected to do so with a maximum of one ring, to always be polite and cheerful, and to speak in a clear voice with an even cadence.

This is equally true on a busy day when they may be dealing with several different tasks simultaneously as is it on a slow one where those expectations may not be as daunting. Receptionists need to keep calm under high pressure situations and never let on to an owner that they have nothing but all the time in the world to help that person deal with their needs.

At our hospital, owners will often call and ask receptionists for advice rather than schedule a consult with a doctor. It is inappropriate for a receptionist to make medical recommendations to owners or to suggest treatment options when owners are looking for a guarantee that it’s okay to not bring their pet in for evaluation.

Receptionists need to be capable of directing owners to the correct person who can adequately answer the questions being posed, but also remain sympathetic to the client’s needs. Therefore, it is imperative for a receptionist to be intelligent, reliable, somewhat medically trained, but also acutely aware of their limitations and when potential lines are close to being crossed.

At many hospitals, and especially those tasked with emergency/urgent care, receptionists are required to triage pets experiencing urgent/life-threatening conditions from those who are stable and able to wait a short while before being seen. This can occur either via a telephone conversation or when the client/patient arrives without an appointment. They often need to make a split-second determination if the situation requires emergency attention, so they should have fundamental training for what to look for to facilitate making that judgment.

Receptionists are often tasked with collecting payments and/or deposits on pet’s bills. They are the frontline individuals dealing with finances and this can lead to some heated “conversations” and emotionally driven interactions, especially in emergency cases.

There are dozens of other responsibilities placed on receptionists, including filing, faxing, scheduling follow-up appointments, dispensing medications, fixing office equipment, and cleaning. These are typically considered the “practical” aspects of their job descriptions.

On the less technically tangible side are the receptionist’s obligations towards calming down anxious or irate clients, working alongside impatient doctors and technicians, and quite literally being emotionally and personally perfect and cheerful at all times.

Receptionists need to be able to accomplish these assignments even when they don’t feel like being particularly jovial or enthusiastic. They need to treat each owner individually and respectfully, even if the person they just spoke to on the phone berated them for charging inordinate prices or not providing them with urgent medical advice.

I’ve read that the job description for a veterinary receptionist requires no specific skill set and no experience. I would argue that for a receptionist to be successful, they need to possess excellent communication skills, advanced technological capabilities, and be able to multi-task without thinking too hard about it.

Additionally, they must possess attributes including kindness, compassion, patience, and like so many of us in the veterinary field, a thick skin to be able to deal with irate and emotional pet owners who sometimes forget to be polite.

I’ve always said I could never do the jobs that the front desk staff performs at my hospital, and I’m extremely grateful to work alongside competent and friendly staff members who toil away so enthusiastically at their responsibilities.

And I very much appreciate their ability to shield me from many of the typical daily tasks they so willingly take on in order to make my day flow as smoothly as possible.

Dr. Joanne Intile 

Image: aspen rock / Shutterstock

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