Case Study: Medical Secretary - Lorna

What do you do?

I am a medical secretary at a teaching hospital. I work for a consultant physician, who specialises in both general medicine and medicine for the elderly.

I organise the consultant's diary, type up outpatient clinic letters and discharge letters. I organise meetings with medical reps, and book rooms.

We have recently started a Parkinson's disease clinic and I have some clinic letters for this as well.

I make new and follow-up appointments for patients, which come via post and telephone calls from GPs. I request medical records and do routine office filing.

My work involves typing on a word processor; I don't get much use for my shorthand at the moment, it's all done by audio as my consultant prefers that method. I use the telephone and email as well.

I keep track of appointments on a whiteboard, as well as annual leave and study leave.

I am responsible for the investigation results and I have to make sure they go out with the clinic letters and are seen by the team. I am also responsible for transferring relevant notes over to a rural hospital where my consultant does a ward round once a week.

I attend medical secretarial meetings every few months here, run by my team leader. She brings us all up to date on what's happening within the hospital trust and the department.

What is your background?

I stumbled into it really because I left school not knowing what I wanted to do. My mum picked up a few leaflets at the local college for me, and she had done secretarial and shorthand work. So I thought I might give it a go.

I thoroughly enjoyed the course - it was two years and covered modules such as word processing, shorthand and medical terminology. We also did role play and communication projects. I have only ever done this kind of work since.

I was working in a GP practice in Scotland, then moved to another practice for about eight years. I was made redundant and then moved to this job. I have been here for three years now.

What characteristics do you need to be successful in your job?

You need to be methodical and well organised. You need to have a good memory too - I tend to write myself notes. You need to have a good telephone manner as well, especially in this department because we are dealing with elderly patients.

You have to be diplomatic as a lot of the patients and relatives are upset or very involved. You obviously have to have good secretarial skills as it's up to you to keep your work up to date.

You have to be able to learn the medical terminology - a lot of the words aren't even spelt the way they sound. Each department and GP uses different terminology, so if you move round you have to be able to learn different words. Even covering for one of the other people in my department I need to know different words, so you're learning all the time.

What other jobs could you do using the skills from this job?

I suppose any general business office job. What I did find when I was made redundant was that it was harder to go into another specialised secretarial job, for example, I tried to go into the police force as a secretary.

What changes will there be in the future?

The three hospitals here have joined together to make one big health trust. There are a lot of changes going on as a result of this. Specialities may be moving to different sites, so I may have a change of office.

My consultant also does endoscopies, so he may have to work from two different sites. That might change the way I have to work.

A lot more of the consultants are getting computer literate themselves, and there was some talk of them speaking into a computer and cutting out the secretary, but I don't know if that will come. Hospitals tend to be a bit slow in getting new equipment.

But they will always need somebody to do the day-to-day running of appointments and so on.

What are the biggest challenges in your job?

I suppose dealing with the general public, definitely, because you get people who are angry or upset.

Also just trying to keep tabs on your consultant can be difficult. If they've had a bad day, you could react the same - you must always be pleasant and jolly.

Are there many opportunities to enter this career?

I think it has got harder over the years, but there are always people on maternity leave or on secondment. So I think there are always plenty of openings.

What do you like about your job?

What I like most about it is the variety, plus there's no-one standing over me telling me when to do things. As long as I do the job, it's left to my discretion to prioritise my own workload and do whatever, whenever, which is what I like - freedom to get on with your work.

What do you dislike about your job?

Sometimes when you get a ratty patient and you can't help them, that can be frustrating.

Also, we have a lot of jobshares here, and I'm the only full-time one in the office. I have to cover for four other people at times, so trying to get my holidays can be difficult.

Some days you can be taking messages constantly, so you don't get any of your own work done - that can be really frustrating. I like to keep on top of things and it starts to bother me after a while.

What are your ambitions?

I think I'd like to eventually go into the management side of things - even just being a team leader. You've had the groundwork, you know how the system works and how the other secretaries work. So you can relate to them more. It's just finding the openings really.

If you get out and about and network with people, you stand more chance.

What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?

Find out as much as you can about it. It would be ideal if you could get into an office environment to have a taster of what it's like. If you have any friends or family who do work in offices, get some feedback from them.

It's a good role if you are interested in medical things - I always watch the medical programmes on television!

I'd say have a go. If you enjoy English grammar and biology at school, which I did, then you might enjoy this job.

A day in the life

8:30 am - 9:30 am

Switch on the computers, fill the kettle and fetch the post, and any blood test results or X-rays. Sort out what is urgent.

9:30 am - 12:30 pm

If it is a clinic day, prepare the notes and make sure everything's ready. If it's a day when medical reps visit, look after them and get them coffee and so on.

Otherwise, type letters and answer the telephone.

12:30 pm - 1:00 pm

On one day a week the consultant has a lunchtime meeting. Welcome people and look after them.

1:00 pm - 1:30 pm

Lunch, usually taken at my desk.

1:30 pm - 4:30 pm

Type up letters and notes from the clinics. Continue taking phone calls and messages. Organise appointments.

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