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The Question

I have the world's best family doctor – she listens, gives great advice, calls me personally to follow up and keeps updated on the latest technology. Her administrative assistant is vile: She is disorganized, impatient and consistently rude, and her English-language skills are basic. Each time I call, it feels like I'm just a nuisance. Do you have any tips on how to deal with a difficult secretary? Is it inappropriate to complain to my doctor about her office staff?

The Answer

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Administrative staff at doctors' offices can range widely – from pleasant to overly protective to downright irritable. Some field two dozen calls a day from an anxious, sometimes angry, public, trying unsuccessfully to locate a physician who is willing to take new patients. They have to contend with a packed waiting room. So demanding are some patients, they seem impossible to satisfy. And then there are those who speak to office staff in a way they would never talk to their physician. All that can make for a cranky receptionist.

So yes, the job is stressful but that does not excuse her behaviour, which sounds unprofessional and unacceptable. Chances are, you are not the only patient who has encountered her vileness – as you call it – and your physician will be glad you brought it up.

Mark Roper, chief of the primary care division at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, recommends you raise the issue with your physician at the end of your next medical visit. Say something like: "May I raise a concern?" then get into it. Tell your physician she has a wonderful office, is a great doctor – of course, only if that is true – but that you are having concerns about the behaviour of her receptionist. Essentially, you want to start off with an affirmative statement before getting into the difficult bits.

In preparation for that talk, analyze your own actions. Ask yourself: Am I the only one the receptionist seems angry with? Am I requesting too many things? You mentioned your physician calls you personally. Could it be that the receptionist is trying to protect the doctor's time because the physician doesn't do it herself?

Most doctors typically call patients at home only when there is an unusual circumstance. Ask yourself: Can I solve the question I have for the doctor by just making an appointment?

In answer to your question, it is appropriate to talk about the office staff to the physician. And trust me, you do not want to confront the receptionist. Be prepared, though, to discover that you may be part of the problem.

"Certainly, in my experience, it's 50-50," Dr. Roper said. "Either the receptionist is inappropriate or the patient is inappropriate."

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The Patient Navigator is a column that answers reader questions on how to navigate our health-care system. Send your questions to patient@globeandmail.com.

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