Five things you should look for when choosing a medical secretary for your private practice

It’s been said (by me!) many times, but your medical secretary really can make or break your private practice. Next to you, she will be the most important person in your practice. Therefore, you can’t afford to make any mistakes when choosing your medical secretary.

But what do you need to think about and what are the non-negotiable skills, experience and attributes that your medical secretary should have?

Here’s my advice about those non-negotiables:-

1. Qualified, with significant experience

I believe that you need a qualified medical secretary, or someone who has significant, relevant and current experience working at a high level as a medical secretary, preferably in a hospital environment, and preferably in private practice.

What counts as “significant” experience? Personally, I would take this to mean a minimum of 10 years, working consistently and regularly as a medical secretary.

I also think it makes for an easier transition to private practice if you recruit a medical secretary who has come from a hospital background. Even so, the demands of private practice are so very different to working within the National Health Service and it will be a very steep learning curve for anyone coming into the private sector from the NHS.

If you can attract someone who has already worked in private practice and comes armed with that knowledge and expertise, then you may be on to a winner.

2. Excellent people skills

Your medical secretary should be able to handle telephone, E-mail and in-person enquiries from your patients and prospective patients with genuine warmth and empathy.

She must be professional yet friendly, and your patients must be able to like and trust her. Trust her to do what you have asked with regard to arranging the patient’s treatment, investigations or appointments, and trust her to respond to requests and queries, and to convey messages from the patient to you. She must be able to demonstrate great customer (patient!) care … always.

She will be the ‘shop window’ of your practice and the way in which she interacts with patients and handles enquiries is crucial. Prospective patients will form an impression of you and of your practice before they even meet you, and regardless of what a great surgeon or doctor you are. The entire tone will have been set by the people the patient has dealt with before they set foot in your consulting room.

3. Business-minded

She must see your practice as a business which needs to make money, innovate, grow, and stands out from your competitors – of which there will be many.

A commercially-aware medical secretary with private practice experience should be able to offer suggestions of her own about the practice and how doing things slightly differently could save you money or make your practice more profitable. She will also have skills and expertise which you don’t, and can be a useful sounding board for any ideas which you have.

She may also be able to help you to (or convince you that you should) market your practice and create a strong online presence. This is where almost all patients look for information about their health these days and be very clear – patients do research the doctors who can provide the expertise they are looking for to treat their condition, and they like to make their own decisions about who they see.

4. Key personal qualities

Here are what I see as the key attributes you should consider when looking for your medical secretary. I’ve taken these from the person specification which I use for my own business when recruiting for The Medical Secretariat Limited.

She should be:-

  • Highly-motivated, professional, enthusiastic and flexible
  • Very aware of the confidential nature of the work – preferably with an awareness of GDPR legislation and able to apply these principles to her everyday work in your practice
  • Honest, reliable and resourceful with the ability to solve problems
  • Able to work under pressure and handle situations which can be stressful and challenging, yet remaining calm and in control
  • Have a pride in her work with careful attention to detail
  • Able to work to deadlines and multitask
  • If she is patient-facing, be smart and well-groomed

And finally, I think it helps enormously if you like and get on with each other. You will both get much more out of your business relationship if this is the case.

5. IT literate

Let’s face it. Technology ‘runs’ most businesses these days. Your medical secretary must come with advanced IT skills including Microsoft Word and Excel, possibly PowerPoint, plus Microsoft Outlook and Google Suite. She must also be able to learn new software and applications quickly and easily, especially if your practice has cloud-based practice management software, which it almost certainly does – and if it doesn’t, please do consider this!

The ability to set up and use a video ‘conferencing’ system such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams for arranging remote consultations for your patients is also a new skill which many private practice medical secretaries and their consultants have had to learn as a result of COVID. If you or your medical secretary need some guidance on how to do this, I’ve written a free eBook to show you how. Click here if you’d like a copy.

In addition, if she has knowledge of and expertise in social media, this could be of enormous value to your practice.

Final thoughts

I want to go back to why I advise you to select a qualified medical secretary or someone who has “relevant and current experience” because I do believe that this is key.

This is your business and your reputation. Your medical secretary can very much influence whether that business – your private practice –  succeeds or fails.

Her performance can also impact the reputation of your private practice, and your own reputation as a clinician. You don’t believe me?

Imagine if she messed up your patient recall system and patients were not called back for review or tests at times which you have stipulated, or if she failed to pass on an important result of an investigation … and you got sued?

Imagine if she was supposed to be handling your practice invoicing, and didn’t raise the invoices on time, or didn’t raise them at all? I know several practices who have been placed in this position by their medical secretary. In fact, I was called in to help an orthopaedic surgeon who couldn’t understand why he was working all hours but never had any money. It turned out that his secretary wasn’t invoicing for any of the operations which he performed “because she didn’t realise she had to”. Because he hadn’t dictated at the end of the discharge summary “… and please charge the insurer for a knee replacement …. “, she hadn’t been doing it – and this had been going on for a year.

How about if your medical secretary didn’t invoice the correct amount for the work you had done, and didn’t chase non-payers or insurance shortfalls. Simon Brignall at MBC recently wrote that many consultants who are going to his company for help “are owed tens of thousands of pounds, and one practice had well over £100,000 outstanding”. This absolutely can happen.

Why would you want to take on someone who had no previous training or experience? If you were getting your expensive pride and joy car serviced, would you want this done by someone who wasn’t a qualified mechanic, or who had never worked on your type of vehicle before? How about if you were having an extension built at home? Would you use someone unqualified or lacking the necessary experience to do the job safely and properly? Of course you wouldn’t!

Don’t underestimate the wide range of duties which she needs to fulfil, don’t underestimate the complexity of her role, and please don’t underestimate the consequences which you could face if you get that decision wrong and make a bad hire.

Your medical secretary is a key person in your professional life and in your business. Please choose carefully and wisely!

What next?

So, now you’ve chosen your medical secretary, what next? My article How to get the best of working with your private practice medical secretary will provide you with some useful tips and suggestions.

Sue Wilcox is an AMSPAR qualified medical secretary. She has worked as a medical secretary in the NHS and private sectors for more than 40 years. She is the Director of The Medical Secretariat Limited which provides medical secretarial and administrative services to consultants in private practice. You can contact Sue by phone on 0121-242 3299 or 07954 433201 or via E-mail at

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