Burnout and staffing shortages are reshaping the front-office staff experience

By Caroline Watson | January 21, 2022

Healthcare receptionist with mask on speaking to a patient on the phone

The work experience of administrative staff working in healthcare organizations can have a meaningful impact on a patient’s experience. Research shows that when administrative staff feel they have as much latitude as clinicians to speak up about workplace issues, patients are more likely to be able to book an appointment when needed and see their doctor within 15 minutes of the appointment time.

To learn more about the administrative staff experience, athenahealth surveyed 139 administrative staff as a counterpart to the Physician Sentiment Index released in 2021. The survey revealed that front office staff are experiencing more burnout than the rest of their administrative counterparts.

Sources of burnout in the front office

Compared to their colleagues working in the back office and in management, front-office staff report more negative sentiment toward their workplace overall. They’re the least likely to feel inspired to go above and beyond in their work, to want to stay at their current organization for the next three years, and to recommend their organization as a place to receive top-quality clinical care.

The reasons why may vary, but the patient-facing aspect of working in the front office can be quite stressful. Front-desk staff are often called to play a caretaking role in addition to their administrative tasks. As the first person patients see upon arriving at the practice, front-desk staff may bear the brunt of patients’ frustration or irritation.

That frustration frequently comes to a head around billing issues, according to Christopher Apostol, D.O., Evans Medical Group. “Our staff has expressed that there’s a lot of anger from patients when they get bills,” Apostol explained. “Our staff is the problem, in their view, because we’re telling them how much they owe.” In most cases, however, the front-desk staff are simply reporting the insurance company’s decision about the claim and are powerless to make changes. With stressful situations like this a regular part of working in the front office, it’s no wonder staff are more burned out than their colleagues.

Autonomy promotes positive workplace sentiment

The survey revealed that one of the most effective strategies to ameliorate negative workplace sentiment can be summed up in one word: autonomy. Of survey respondents who reported having a sense of flexibility and empowerment in their work, 96% feel inspired to go above and beyond, 89% intend to stay at their current organization, and 94% would recommend their organization to a friend or relative.

A sense of empowerment is especially important for front-desk staff, who are often the people from the office that patients have the most interpersonal interactions with. Front-desk staff may find themselves comforting patients, listening to their stories, and giving them health-related advice, but these contributions can easily go unnoticed. As a result, front-desk staff may find themselves in a position where they don’t feel properly trained or respected but are still relied upon by patients for support throughout their care process.

Rhonda Tucker Donnelly, front office coordinator at Evans Medical Group, knows these dynamics firsthand. It’s part of why she invests a lot of time listening to her staff and trying to find concrete solutions to their daily challenges, through questions like: “What can we do better, and how can we make your life a little easier? What are the things you’re doing mundanely and routinely that are a pain? How can we fix that or automate it?”

The technology-oriented front office of the future

As healthcare organizations look ahead to a future shaped by industry-wide staffing shortages, technology tools are helping to decrease the total volume of work required in the front office and enable staff to focus on higher-value tasks instead.

For example, some organizations report success using online patient portals to encourage patients to view and pay their bills before coming to the office, so front-desk staff can spend less time collecting payment. Other organizations have found that offering patient self-scheduling cuts down on the deluge of daily phone calls to the front desk.

After struggling to find a full-time employee to hire, Evans Medical Group decided to move to online check-in through Epion Health, an athenahealth Marketplace partner. “We’re really looking at it as a substitute for a full-time employee, because we can’t find a full-time employee,” said Apostol. “If Epion can remove 20-25% of our online check-in or registration, then that’s like having a new employee. And the employees here will be freed up to be able to do the tasks that they haven’t had time to get done.”

Those tasks include everything from catching up on billing to performing patient outreach to close care gaps. “Our front office does some of our outreach for appointment reminders for gaps in care, between our ACO or some of our other value-based contracts,” said Apostol. “We run those reports regularly to make sure that we meet the quality metrics or that we’re not letting patients fall through the crack. But we haven’t been able to run those reports nearly as much or as fast because there’s just not that extra time in the day.”

With digital check-in, however, Evans Medical Group will be able to ask patients to fill out demographic information at their leisure, rather than spending significant time on the phone with the office. “That should help a lot with our ability to speed up the check-in process and not keep our staff tied up,” said Apostol. It may even have the important added benefit of increasing patient satisfaction, as the check-in process should be much less time-consuming on the patient side.

As staffing shortages become a more permanent fixture, other healthcare organizations may soon follow suit. Technology-driven solutions like digital check-in and self-scheduling, among others, offer organizations more staffing flexibility, while simultaneously improving the patient experience.

Evans Medical Group participates in athenahealth’s Client Advocacy Program. To learn more about the program, please visit Evans Medical Group was not compensated for participating in this content.