I have had my own medical secretaries and nowadays I recruit secretaries for other people’s practices. One misconception is that the role of the medical secretary is a reasonably straightforward one. However, this is rarely the case, depending on the office, the secretary must juggle a number of balls, being aware of what stage each task is at and what the critical times are for it to be moved to the next stage while still being prepared to be endlessly interrupted by new tasks that come in.

The situation is hardest in an office where there is a sole practitioner, and only one secretary to cover all of the required tasks. Of course, in a larger office with multiple practitioners and multiple secretaries it is possible to divide the work a lot more, reducing the need to constantly multitask, but it will still exist to some extent.

At Schward, we know how complicated this role can be, and that the person also needs to be aligned to the culture of the office. Let’s consider the various tasks that a medical secretary working in a solo practitioner’s office might be asked to undertake.

1. Phone reception
This is a primary function of the role and one we would all be familiar with. It is fundamental to ensure that the doctors diary is organised and filled with patients who call for an appointment. However, it is not just taking appointments. The secretary will need to have some specific knowledge about what the doctor does to properly screen calls, ensure that the patient is aware of what they must do before coming to the appointment (e.g. avoid medication X for 3 days before the appointment). Similarly, patients and prospective patients will often ask the secretary for information on their symptoms and it will be secretary’s role to triage some of these calls for the need for urgent appointments, urgent notification to the doctor or some other appropriate action.

2. In person reception
The next obvious task will be to receive patients when they arrive. If it is a new patient, this will require that data is collected from the patient and entered into the doctor’s medical system, ensure that the paperwork is in order and ready for the doctor to take into the appointment with the patient. If it is a follow up patient returning to learn about their results, the secretary will likely be responsible for ensuring that the results are available and in order for the doctor to have available during the consultation.

Many patients attending a doctor’s office are anxious, and having an understanding, sympathetic manner can help the process considerably. Paradoxically, the same person also needs to be able to be firm with some patients who may be demanding, running late, or even angry.

3. Accounts receivable
These days most payments occur via some form of EFTPOS. However, it is often a lot more complicated that this in a medical office. The account is linked to either a Medicare or private health insurance refunds. These systems are usually more complicated, involving additional steps and not uncommonly things go wrong which require the secretary to problem solve the difficulty to ensure that not only has the medical practitioner been paid, but also that the patient has received their refund.

4. IT
In a small office there will not be a dedicated IT professional and even though there may be an outsourced IT professional for big problems, it will usually fall to the secretary to resolve most if not all of the smaller IT problems that occur in an office that generally involves several networked computers, printers and other devices.

5. Office supplies
Ensuring that office supplies are available and ready to use when they are needed is important for the smooth running of the office. The secretary will be the person who keeps track of what is running out and ensuring that it has been delivered before it affects the flow of work in the office.

6. Medical supplies
In a larger office, this might be undertaken by the clinic nurse, but in a solo practitioner’s office, it will usually fall to the secretary. The requirements for each office will be different and the secretary will need to learn what is required and either follow or develop ordering systems to ensure that the doctor has what is required. Sometimes these supplies will be relatively generic, but sometimes they will be patient specific requiring very careful ordering, receiving and storage of the custom medications.

7. Dealing with Medicare, other insurers, hospitals, & other doctors.
Medical practices do not operate in isolation, they exist among a myriad of other services, businesses, and government departments. It will usually fall to the secretary to liaise with all of these entities to pass on information, receive information or resolve problems that may have developed.

8. Debt collector
Debt collection is an unfortunate and less pleasant part of most business operations and it is necessary to keep on top of this aspect. While more problematic cases can be referred to debt collector, the majority will be dealt with in-house by the secretary who will need to politely but firmly contact clients who have failed to pay their accounts.

9. Accounts payable
Accounts need to be paid and the secretary will often be responsible for keeping track of what payments are due and making arrangements for the payments to be paid. This may even include their own wages.

10. Cleaning
While most offices will have a professional cleaner attend regularly to maintain the cleanliness of the office, in a medical practice there will usually be things that happen in between cleaning visits. The secretary will usually take care of these problems to ensure that the office is always looking its best and there are no health concerns for patients who are about to attend.

11. Support person for anxious patients.
Sometimes the doctor presents patients with bad news and the patient will be anxious, worried or even upset. There are times when the secretary takes a role in helping the patient, perhaps through a few kindly words or offering a cup of tea. Just enough to get them on their way safely and back to their family or friends.

12. Personal assistant
While a bit ‘old school’ many doctors work from very early in the morning to late into the evening and don’t have time to do many things that they would otherwise do for themselves. It is not uncommon that the secretary also fulfills a PA’s role which might include simple things as getting the morning coffee or lunch, to other tasks including the banking, or purchasing items in the local area.

As you can see, even though each task in the role might not seem too difficult, it is the difficulty involved in balancing all of these things from moment to moment each day that can make it complex. In some ways it is not a specialist role, but it does benefit from life experience and a willingness to learn and continually develop skills. Above all though, it requires an ability be able to focus on multiple tasks, suspend some to deal with other more pressing events as they arrive but then pick up the suspended task later. A well chosen secretary will often stay in the position for many years and be absolutely fundamental and integral to the good running of the practice.

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