Why First Impressions Matter at a Doctor’s Office

I really shouldn't be this surprised when someone at a doctor's office is nice to me.

I never thought I’d be writing a blog post about how a person was nice to me on the phone. It seems so simple, so un-noteworthy—the notion that a stranger on the other end of the phone line would be anything but kind, helpful, understanding and patient seems a bit preposterous, even to me. But here I am about to regale you with the tale of a doctor’s office receptionist who was so kind, so helpful, that it was struck me as extremely noteworthy. Which, when you think about it, is really kind of sad.

Let me preface this with a confession: Even though it’s my job to do so, I hate calling doctor’s offices. In my experience, the phone call is an unpleasant one at least three-quarters of the time. Not because the doctors are necessarily rude—with the exception of a few, I’ve found most doctors to be kind and affable—but because the front desk person, the gatekeeper so to speak, is often so harried and unfriendly that I can hardly get my words out without feeling like an enormous pest. I get not wanting to bother with media calls (who do I think I am, anyway?), but the experience is the same whether I’m calling as a patient or a health editor: More often than not, the receptionists are gruff, short, and unfriendly, doing and saying only what’s minimally required of them.

I’ve come to brace myself for these conversations, hesitating for just a second before dialing to gather my thoughts. Health Editor Emily has her introduction spiel down pat; I’ve learned to spit out who I am and what I’m calling for in such an efficient manner that I’m able to eat up as little time as possible of whomever I happen to get on the other end—because heaven forbid I waste someone’s time with an interview request. Patient Emily, who calls the doctor only when in the absolute throes of flu-induced death, just tries to sound as pathetic as possible in hopes of securing the next open appointment. In my experience, neither of these tactics are particularly effective.

Which leads me to my statement two paragraphs ago: I hate calling doctor’s offices.

Yesterday, I got a breath of fresh air. Patient Emily—I am currently in the throes of summer-flu-induced death, if you’re wondering—called the doctor ready to beg for an appointment. Truth be told, this was a new doctor, because in the year-plus since moving back to Philly I’ve yet to actually find a primary care doctor. This is my own dumb fault, for waiting until I was sick to find someone, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

“I’ve been sick for a week,” I told the receptionist as pathetically as possibly. “Is there anything you can do to squeeze me in?”

“I’m sorry, our next appointment for new patients isn’t until August 7th,” she said. I sighed. Loudly.

“You don’t sound so good. What are your symptoms?” she asked. I was surprised. None of the other front desk folks I’d talked to seemed to care a lick. They simply told me they weren’t taking new patients for weeks or months before abruptly hanging up. But this woman actually seemed to care. I’m sure she had 7,000 other things she needed to be doing, but she took the time to talk to me, and I appreciated it.

I recited my list of symptoms. “What do you recommend I do?” I asked.

“Well, to be honest, since you don’t have a primary doc, pretty much anywhere you call won’t have an appointment for you,” she said, kindly.

“Yeah, I sort of figured,” I said.

“For now, your best bet is probably urgent care. But I would recommend that you take the appointment on August 7th so we can get you in the system. That way, the next time you’re sick, you can call and we can get you in on the same day. How’s that sound?” she asked, brightly. I swear, I could hear the woman smiling.

“That would be fantastic,” I said, and I gave her my information.

Before hanging up, I thanked her profusely for being so kind. Then (before heading off to urgent care) I marched in to no less than three coworkers’ offices to tell them about the nice woman I’d just talked to on the phone, and I encouraged them to go to this doctor if they needed one.

Mind you, my appointment isn’t for two weeks; I haven’t even met the doctor yet. But in my opinion, a doctor’s gatekeeper as good an indicator as any of what I can expect from the doctor himself (or herself, as in this case). She obviously knows that first impressions matter and that good public relations skills aren’t any less important than lofty medical school diplomas. Doctors and their staff, after all, are in the people business—the sick people business, really, which makes the tasks of kindness and courtesy that much more imperative. And it starts with the person who answers the phone, for better or worse.

A day after my phone call, I’m still gushing about it. Believe it or not, I’m actually looking forward to my August 7th appointment. I plan to tell the doctor just how pleasant her receptionist is—and how rare.

>> Have you ever dealt with a less-than-friendly staffer at a doctor’s office? Or someone who’s been especially kind or patient? Share your stories in the comments.