I recently gave the staff toast at the annual Doctors of BC holiday event in Vancouver. I was happy to thank the staff for their tireless work in pursuit of our vision of Better Together, and for truly making a difference for doctors. I commended them for facilitating a warm, welcoming, advocacy-based organization that serves our members well. But as I was speaking, I realized that there’s another team I should also be lauding - I needed to give this same toast to my office support staff.
I often find myself reflecting at this time of year on what an honour it is to be a family physician, the important part I play throughout my patients’ lives, my position of privilege – and how my office support staff play a pivotal role. We always celebrate the holidays, traditionally we have an office dinner out, but as I reflect on my appreciative patients who drop off samples of their favourite Christmas baking or chocolates, everything our office staff does to support patients and physicians alike, is crystal clear.Together, we provide patients the care they need, in the most timely fashion possible.
Our staff are coordinators, and gatekeepers. They are the first to face the morning onslaught of phone calls from patients, ardently seeking immediate attention for their particular medical conditions. They provide the calm voice and organized explanation of the day or week ahead, outlining how our office can accommodate their needs. And my busy schedule as president of Doctors of BC has not made this task any easier – my patients have less access to me, and the burden of that falls onto my staff.
Support staff need to have a gentle touch, and a very thick skin. They are the first ones to be reprimanded when we can’t meet patient expectations. They face the patient infuriation when special tests or referrals have long wait times. They are the ones who phone office after office, trying to find a more timely appointment. Support staff shield us from this exasperation so that by the time patients see me, they have generally returned to a calmer state and I don’t usually see their ire.
Our office staff are timekeepers, tasked with making decisions around how much time can be allotted for which issues, on any given day. They know the work pace, and they know the patients well enough to recognize when 10 minutes is sufficient, and when it will take 30 minutes to address a more complex issue. We work in concert, it’s a delicate balance of meeting patient requests and organizing physician schedules, while trying to ensure we physicians get even a 10 minute lunch break. The moral injury that support staff can experience trying to balance the many requests is frequently overlooked, and should be recognized more often.
This sentiment extends to all our staff, no matter what the setting. I was reminded of this on my last call shift when we were working without a unit clerk at the hospital. It took two nurses and myself to find and print a little-used document, the pathology requisition. Hospital-based support staff are often the first to meet with the patients or family members when their needs are not being addressed to their satisfaction. They are the frontline for the deluge of physician and nursing orders and requests, particularly when on a deadline for discharge. They can make or break the patient and family experience.
As we move toward an increasingly team-based care model in our community practices, we must emphasize the important roles support staff play in system efficiency, and in meeting patient needs. In essence, we will need to find better ways to support our support staff.
So as we approach the holiday season and the many reflections this time of year brings, I would sincerely like to thank and recognize each of our amazing support staff for their tireless dedication in building the culture of trust, respect, and reliability, necessary to manage our complex medical system.
- Dr Kathleen Ross