Front desk talk: discourse analysis of receptionist-patient interaction

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output


GP receptionists are the first point of contact with the NHS for most patients and have an important role in facilitating access to healthcare services. There is evidence that they are often perceived as impersonal, insensitive, or officious.


To analyse the communicative styles of GP receptionists when dealing with patients.

Design of study

Ethnographically situated discourse analysis of audio recordings.


Three NHS GP surgeries in Scotland.


Fine-grained transcription and stage-by-stage analysis of digital audio recordings of 283 encounters between receptionists and patients engaged in front desk business. Participants were 16 receptionists and 283 patients.


Interaction between receptionists and patients consists mainly of verbal routines that are shaped by the administrative tasks completed through them. Receptionists adhere to these established patterns of use at all times, even when dealing with non-routine situations. Within the routine framework, receptionists communicate with patients using styles that display three dominant approaches: task centred, conventionally polite, and rapport building. Receptionists who adopt a task-centred approach use forms with minimal interpersonal content, while those who use conventionally polite forms or those associated with rapport building, give attention to establishing positive relationships with patients. There is no evidence that any stylistic approach is more efficient than another. There is, however, evidence that excessive adherence to routine verbal behaviour has an adverse impact on problem solving.


Most receptionist discourse consists of the repetition of established verbal routines. Receptionists adopt verbal styles that are predominantly task centred, conventionally polite, or rapport building. Although all three styles enable the completion of reception work with similar levels of efficiency, task-centred styles may appear over-direct. The use of a routine approach when dealing with problematic situations can inhibit and delay their resolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)571-577
Number of pages7
JournalBritish Journal of General Practice
Issue number565
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2009


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