Veterinary disrespect: Overcoming the "just a receptionist" rap


Receptionists, remove the obstacles that prevent you from being considered part of your practice's healthcare team.

Does your veterinary practice consistently recognize that you and your fellow front office employees are part of the healthcare team? Or are you considered "just" a receptionist? If the answer to the first question is a resounding (and disappointing) no, there are several reasons why that may be the case. Among them: your lack of medical training, a lack of respect from the other members of the healthcare team, and even your own lack of self-respect.

Removing these obstacles is key to changing the second-class status for receptionists that exists in many practices. The good news: Getting rid of just one of these obstacles simultaneously helps to remove the others. If your front office team gets medical training, for example, you'll gain more respect from the veterinarians and technicians on your team, which in turn will strengthen your own self-respect. So how do you get started knocking down the barriers that prevent you from being considered an essential part of the healthcare team? Begin with medical training.

Building medical skills

Receptionists should know medical terminology, common medications, common laboratory tests, and the most commonly performed surgeries or procedures in that practice. To begin building your own knowledge, identify the top 10 to 20 items in each category. If you're not sure about the top items, ask your practice manager, a veterinary technician, or a doctor for help. Then focus on learning the correct spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of the words and phrases included on the list of important medical terms. For training on medications, study the brand name and corresponding generic name, the basic use of the drug, and the most common side effects. For laboratory tests, learn the more familiar acronym as well as the full name, the basic use of the test, and the sample (blood, feces, or urine) required to perform the test.

Regardless of whether you're tackling this learning individually or as a team, it's important to share your resources. Keep the materials you develop for this training in a central location at the front desk for future reference in training new hires and to refresh your own memory. Consider laminating quick tip sheets and placing them at each reception station for quick reference.

This extra effort will help get the entire front office staff trained on medical aspects, which will improve the overall reputation of the practice. How? Clients will receive a consistent message when every member of the team uses the same terminology and pronunciation. This will lead clients to view the front office staff as knowledgeable members of the healthcare team. Well-trained receptionists also will bolster the practice's standing when calls come in from neighboring veterinary practices, when pets come in via a referral, or when pets are being referred onward from your practice. Being able to "speak the lingo" with other veterinary professionals shows that your whole team knows its stuff. It's important to remember that all communication flows through the front office, so receptionists represent the practice to more people on a daily basis than any other team member.

Building team respect

Elevating the medical skills of the front office team also will affect internal perceptions. With training, you'll find the medical team in "the back" treating you as part of the overall healthcare team. This happens because a better-trained front office team means the medical team won't need to translate messages into layman's terms. And respect-killing gaffes by the front office will be minimized: Because all communication flows through the front office, your mistakes—whether misspelling a medical term on a chart or mispronouncing a medication name over the intercom—are often broadcast to the entire practice. The public nature of your position makes it even more important to be correct.

Building self-respect

Perhaps worst of all, the perceived lack of respect from the medical team makes it difficult for the receptionist to maintain self-respect. Often, the medical team basks in the spotlight while you and your front office team members are pushed into the shadows. The symptoms are easy to spot: patient-care-related topics dominate the staff-meeting agenda, participation by the front office team is minimal at company functions, and decisions are made on new or revised protocols without input from front office team members. This leads to marginalization and becomes a vicious cycle: Your opinion isn't given, your opinion isn't sought, you begin to feel less important and less involved, and that causes you to stay silent even if someone (finally!) asks your opinion. The cycle needs to be stopped, and you can help stop it.

First, initiate training as outlined earlier and start raising the bar of knowledge demonstrated by the front office team. Second, ask the medical team for recommendations on texts or material for training, and begin to get involved in medical continuing education seminars that take place inside and outside the practice. Third, you and your teammates can look for opportunities to ask medical questions and demonstrate your new knowledge as you progress, gradually elevating your reputation at the same time.

Mutual respect begins with finding common ground. A survey published by the Humane Society of the United States found that veterinary receptionists experience job satisfaction through daily contact with animals and by being considered members of the healthcare team that is helping animals—despite the fact that they typically have the least amount of contact with animals on a daily basis and the least amount of influence over patient care.

So let's focus on what we all have in common with each other—a desire to help animals—and less on what we don't. When we do that, every position in our practices becomes equally important.

Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR, is the founder of interFace Veterinary HR Systems in Appleton, Wis.

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