I have recently come across a situation that made me feel very uncomfortable, especially if it had been more of a personal issue.

I contacted my doctor yesterday with pains in my hand/wrist as I didn't feel it was serious enough for a visit to the hospital, but had been going on long enough I needed a professional opinion. I spoke with the receptionist on the phone, with the call going as follows:

Receptionist: Hi, how can I help you today?
Me: I'd like to make an appointment to see a Doctor today please, do you have any available?
Receptionist: Let me have a look... Yes, we have xx:xxpm, is that okay with you?
Me: Yes, that's great, thank you.
Receptionist: Okay, it will be with Dr. xxxxxx. Can I ask what the reason for the appointment is?

At this point I froze, as I've never had this asked by the receptionist, and I ended up explaining my issue out of panic/anxiety of not knowing how to decline the request.

How can I make clear I'm not happy sharing this information with them, without offending them?

14 Answers 14

up vote 264 down vote accepted

I have recently had to make a long series of doctors appointments. After the 3rd time someone asked me this I got a bit annoyed too and asked them why they were asking.

The receptionist smiled at me and said I didn't have to be specific, but she wanted to know so she could provide details for the doctor. This way they can determine multiple things:

  • How long the appointment will take
  • If the doctor needs to make any arrangements (equipment, assistance, reserve a certain room)
  • if the doctor needs to do any research in advance. (Maybe you're coming back because the previous treatment didn't work, in this case he needs to think about a new treatment.)
  • If it's likely they'll need something from you (urine, bloodtest etc) they might inform you about this too. Especially if it's a follow up appointment.

It's nothing personal and you don't have to go into deep details, but it will probably help you out if you give her some information.

You're not required to do so however, and you can always tell her 'I'm more comfortable discussing this with the doctor'.

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    @mickburkejnr This is the answer I got by my receptionist, I'm in EU. Receptionists here can actually do quite a bit, such as make an appointment for you to do extra research. – Summer Aug 23 at 8:06
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    @Summer: This was tagged UK and while your answer technically applies to the UK as well, here receptionist (for a GP or nurse, everything else goes by referral) usually cannot schedule anything but a standard appointment (10 min, this is what the NHS pays for) except on a doctor's request and if the doctor requests it she already knows why. – Marianne013 Aug 23 at 9:52
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    I've accepted this answer because I didn't consider how much information they could supply to the doctor regarding the appointment for them to prepare. When I attended it was late in the working day and the waiting room was quite full so I can understand trying to fit as many patients in as possible, and without knowing some simple details about an appointment can reduce potential patients seen. Thank you. – Clannagh Aug 23 at 12:16
  • I'm living in the Netherlands and it's quite normal here for the receptionist to ask the reason for the appointment. As said in the answer, you don't have to go in detail tell what the reason is, just some general information for the doctors to prepare in case it's needed. – Denny Aug 31 at 8:41

The problem may lie in miscommunications. Receptionist asked the question expecting answer as "Consultations / first visit / prescription need". It's rather to know how much time will you take more than exact reason why you want to see a doctor.

The problem is that you understand her from totally different perspective so you assumed she's asking about your condition.

As for her the reason is consultation and for you it's wrist pain.

Having been that receptionist a few times* I can tell you about it from the other side.

I'm UK based and was working for NHS GP surgeries. Receptionists are bound by all the same patient confidentiality rules. They're just receptionists, no special training apart from the list of reasons that get you through regardless, the doctors make any decisions on priority based on the reason given.

From your description of the conversation you were offered an appointment on the same day, that would class as an urgent appointment and require a reason to be given.

You are permitted to say it's personal or private. The receptionists don't want more than one or two words to describe it, it's not a very big text box. We certainly don't want the extensive details that too many people gave us as soon as they were given the opportunity.


Asking a reason for the appointment normally only applies to urgent appointments, special appointments and nurse appointments. Every so often a doctor will ask for a reason on every appointment but it never sticks as it takes too long.

For a doctor the special appointments are normally things like baby and maternity checks that take longer. If you're booking multiple slots for a single appointment the doctors are going to want to know why, a reason is always required for this.

Nurse appointments often require equipment such as dressings or vaccinations that may not be stored in their own room fridge. Putting a reason on the appointment allows the nurse to have everything ready before calling you in. Nurses will not normally call a patient in without knowing why they're there, if they have to leave a patient in the room they'll need to call another member of staff in. A patient should never be left alone in a clinical room.

Urgent appointments can be prioritised based on the reason given. "Personal" will come below "Chest Pain" or "Baby having asthma attack" for example. Some reasons also allow overbooking of appointments, there's a set of reasons which will allow you to book an appointment on the same session even if all the listed appointments are filled. Beyond that list, the receptionist doesn't care what your reason for wanting the appointment is, they must not attempt to make judgement on the urgency of your condition, only a clinician can do that.

The reason the receptionist asks at the end of booking the appointment is simply because that's when the dialog box comes up asking for it.


*It's a tough job but not a thankless one, around Christmas we lived on chocolate provided by the regular patients. Soooo much chocolate, but more is always appreciated.

Warning: I'm french and the answer to this question might change depending of the country.

From my (young) experience, this question is fairly common. I never bother to ask why he/she needed to know but I'm guessing it is to establish the gravity of your problem (and maybe move the appointment to earlier) or direct you to an other specialist (a dentist for example).

I understand the "Can I ask..." as a way to allow you to refuse to answer (but I'm not a native english so I could be wrong). Anyway, you can always reply by: "Do I have to? I rather discuss it only with the doctor". This way you show that you are uncomfortable sharing your problem and I don't think anyone will be offended.

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    To confirm, yes, your understanding of "Can I ask..." is correct; the OP could've responded "I prefer not to say.". – Nat Aug 22 at 16:08
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    Idiomatically, the phrase “can I ask” is just added for politeness - it doesn’t constrain or lessen the range of responses. With or without the phrase, one can still respond, “I prefer not to say”. – Lawrence Aug 23 at 6:46

How can I make clear I'm not happy sharing this information with them, without offending them?

Simple; when asked:

"Can I ask what the reason for the appointment is?"

You politely respond :

"I would rather not share that information."

In my opinion, based on the wording you provided, the receptionist was trying to give you the option to avoid disclosing any personal information you didn't feel the need to disclose. That's the importance of starting the question with

"Can I ask..."

If you really wanted to make sure there was no hard feelings, it might make sense to add:

"If you have any specific questions about the nature of the visit, I may be able to answer those."

This seems like it could be excessive; but as mentioned in other answers, the receptionist is likely only trying to figure out some logistics of your visit. There is probably some information that would help them, and that you could share without any awkward feelings on your end.

This answer is for the case given here, i.e. on the phone and not on-site, so there are no other patients listening in.

Receptionist: Okay, it will be with Dr. xxxxxx. Can I ask what the reason for the appointment is?

First of all, I have never met a receptionist which did not ask this question. It it is very valuable, practical information for them. It helps them to find a good time slot, including probable duration etc.

I prefer doctors whose assistants ask such. It means they think upfront, and I then usually do not sit in the waiting room for hours because they can actually plan their doctor's time in a sensible way. Also, if the same person handles the appointments of multiple doctors (which is the usual way in my country), then they get to pick the one who might specialize in my problem.

So you are doing well to simply put together your acceptable answer up-front (before the call) and then give it. You might also just come out with your problem without them asking anyways.

The receptionist should accept any level of detail, and at least in my country the receptionist obviously is also bound by law to uphold confidentiality, just the same as the doctor (and more likely than not, they have access to the same data anyways because they need it for their work).

Some examples:

I have a problem with my hands that I didn't feel was serious enough for a visit to the hospital, but it has been going on long enough that I need a professional opinion.

Or...

I have some pain in my hands and need a professional opinion on how to proceed.

Or simply...

I would prefer to discuss that with the doctor in private.

The first two might indicate that you need an X-ray or MRT or whatever advanced test they can do, and the receptionist might be able to find a timeslot where that apparatus is free, saving you a lot of time.

I live in the UK and am also unfortunately no stranger to having to make doctors appointments.

Appointments with doctors / GPs are typically given in time-slots, perhaps 15 minutes or half an hour, it probably varies. If the receptionist does not know why you are looking for an appointment, they will book you in for the shortest single time slot. That's likely what they have been trained to do. The worst-case scenario from this is that the doctor determines during the appointment that 15 minutes isn't enough time to help you and suggests you come back later for a longer appointment. When I've had this happen, in passing along the doctor's suggestion, I simply say to the receptionist that the doctor "wants me back for an hour-long appointment next time."

Sometimes the receptionist will ask what it is for. They are not usually asking for specifics. From past experience, they are asking if any special preparations have to be made; special equipment, a specific room in the building, assistance in moving or communicating with you, these kinds of things. If they do ask, you can simply tell them that "no special preparations are needed". If they persist, deliberate or otherwise, I've told them that "that's just for the doctor and I for now. It'll be up to her/him to decide if anyone else needs to know." By doing this, you are reminding them of your confidentiality without coming across as offensive. Let your rights work for you.

Yes they can ask you to know in advance what the problem is and what to expect. In my opinion what the receptionist did wrong was not saying "if I may ask" after his sentence.

I had a similar situation when I contacted my urologist to cancel an appointment. The lady on the phone asked me the reason, but she said "if I may ask" after. I didn't feel unconfortable saying "I don't feel pain anymore" but of course the business between urologist and patient is always delicate, so I could've of course declined his question saying "it's a personal matter".

As per "What is the best possible answer to show that I am not happy sharing this information with them, without offending them?" It's really no big deal. A simple "sorry it's private" or "I prefer to speak with the my doctor only" won't offend anyone. The receptionist can't force you to share information with her but keep in mind that due to the nature of her job she could see some data about you written somewhere. Also I think it's unnecessary to tell you that everything is confidential.

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    "In my opinion what the receptionist did wrong was not saying "if I may ask" after his sentence." The OP did quote the receptionist as starting the question with "Can I ask..." which has the same meaning. – Kapten-N Aug 23 at 10:12
  • @Kapten-N I think "if I may ask" is less demanding of a response. – Cris Aug 23 at 10:38

I'm not sure if this is relevant to your specific discomfort, but I haven't seen it mentioned here yet.

Assuming you're in the US, everyone involved in your medical care, from your MD to the nurses down to the receptionist and even peripheral care providers such as Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians or physical therapists are bound by HIPAA.

Granted sharing personal medical information with any stranger can be uncomfortable, anyone working in the medical field should be well versed in not only the legal, but also personal sides of privacy and won't be sharing that information with anyone outside your treatment. In fact I even had to take a short course on the legal aspects of medical privacy for certification as an IT Network Tech, on the off chance I ended up working for a medical facility who would then go into deeper detail in their training program.

As most have mentioned, the real reason for these questions is really just to update your doctor/care provider so that they can be better prepared to treat you to the best of their ability.

Edit: I just saw that you're not located in the US, but I would imagine that the UK privacy laws are similarly all-encompassing.

UK resident here:

In my experience this is completely normal, the Receptionist fills in a form with your details and broad-strokes nature of the problem so that the doctor can have a clear idea what to expect beforehand.
Doctors are always busy, frequently overworked and benefit massively from not having to ask questions that could have been put on a form at reception.

If you're really not comfortable giving a response, something low-detail or just saying it's not something you'd want to tell anyone but the doctor about will be acceptable, just not quite as convenient for them.
If it's an urgent problem or causing you active pain you'll want to make that clear though, otherwise your problem may get pushed down the queue in favour of more vocal patients.

In practice (no pun intended), I wouldn't worry.
The receptionists have seen and heard far worse stories than you're ever likely to bring them and they're typically legally or at least professionally bound to keep your confidential information private in the same way as the doctor is.

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    "they're typically legally or at least professionally bound to keep your confidential information private " - yes, this. Actually, usually the relevant rules explicitly mention "doctors and other medical professionals" or something like that, so they explicitly apply to receptionists as well. – sleske Aug 23 at 12:45

Really late to the party here, and upvoted most of the answers here, however I thought you might appreciate a (U.S) physician's perspective on this (speaking as someone once in private practice.)

As a physician, my primary concern is that you get the appropriate level of care when you need it. Imagine how the response to making an appointment might differ if the answer(s) were:

  • I'm having chest pain... (more questions or put you on the phone immediately with a nurse to do important triage)
  • I'm coughing up blood... (see above)
  • I'm short of breath... (see above)
  • I want to talk about losing weight... (OK, see you at 2 o'clock, M. X!)
  • My knee hurts... (see above)
  • I have a rash on my arms...(see above)
  • A bat flew into my face last night... (doctor calls back and tells you to go to the Emergency Room right away!)
  • I've been bitten by a tick... (nurse gets on the phone, asks if tick is still attached)
  • I've been bitten by a spider... (some nursing triage, worry about MRSA and precautions office might need to take to limit spread)
  • It hurts when I go to the bathroom (let me see if we have anything today...)
  • Etc.

How can I make clear I'm not happy sharing this information with them, without offending them?

Any time you make it clear that you think you may know more than a person who is doing what they perceive to be their job does, it will most likely be somewhat offensive. So choose your position: your comfort or theirs.

The best route might to be politely evasive, but give them what they really want to know, or let them off the legal hook:

It's nothing serious, just some minor aches and pains.
It's nothing serious, something that's been going on for a couple of weeks, not serious enough to go to the hospital/emergency room about.
It's nothing serious, I'm sure it can wait until tomorrow. Thanks for asking.
It's nothing serious, I'd rather wait to discuss it with the doctor tomorrow, if you don't mind, thanks.

If they are tactless or doggedly determined, they might say, "The doctor will want to know what it's about."

Then a, "Thanks, I'm aware of that. It's nothing serious. I'll discuss it with Dr. X tomorrow" should do it.

  • The downside of "nothing serious" is that I've had older people say "it's nothing serious, just a bit of chest pain, it can wait". The people you most need to get in are often the ones least likely to want to make a fuss. – Separatrix Aug 29 at 11:34
  • @Separatrix - I'm looking at this through the OP's lens. If they do not want to give the reason, they are letting the office staff off the hook with, "Nothing serious." I'm not saying it's a great tactic; that should be obvious from my post. – anongoodnurse Aug 29 at 15:39

With the GP practice that I am registered with in the UK, the receptionist's questions would have been in the opposite order.

If you are presenting with a new medical problem, after being asked what the problem is the receptionist (who is a trained health professional, not just a telephone operator!) would "triage" the problem and possibly transfer the phone call to one of the practice's nurses, rather than immediately take up a doctor's time with something that might not need that level of expertise.

I would add that the receptionist has access to your computerised medical records, so you don't need to describe things that are already on that record in detail - the receptionist can read!

In fact "admin" type problems (e.g. with repeat prescriptions, or test results that have gone astray for some reason) are usually sorted out by the receptionist him/herself, without anyone else having to spend time on them.

I have no personal experience of refusing to give any information about a medical problem, but I suspect the result of that refusal would be put at the "back of the queue" so far as getting an appointment was concerned.

  • The question asks for how they can inform the receptionist that they are not willing to divulge personal information at the time of booking an appointment. They are asking for guidance in how to respond and do not mention how their position in the queue would be affected. Actually the appointment had already been made before a reason was requested. – Elsdon Ward Aug 22 at 21:58

I've worked for doctors and answered the phone. We don't need all the details, but we need to know you are having wrist pain or what. We don't mindlessly fill in slots. Even your hairdresser needs to know if you are getting a a dry cut, cut and color, wedding hairstyle, or what! We have to make sure you are seeing the wrist doctor, not the back doctor. I have literally had to pull information out a caller, only to find out that the "back" problem she wanted an appt for was actually for hemorrhoids! She was about to wait up to 2 hours to see an orthopedic surgeon instead of a proctologist! I don't know what you know, so a few questions are important. Even if you are seeing the right doctor, there are certain conditions that take longer, like back pain, so we have to make sure we only have 2 backs on the whole day. Gotta know. It's not that we want to know - it's the doctors' rules and it's part of scheduling. What we don't need is a lot of extra information we didn't ask for, because we probably have 6 other callers waiting.

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    As the OP put a UK tag on this question its not the way a patient interacts with doctors here, they would not call to see a orthopedic surgeon or a proctologist. Instead they see the NHS GP that they are registered with for an initial assement who would then refer them to the appropriate specialist for treatment at a local hospital, perform minor surgeries themselves or prescribe drugs. In some circumstances the GP may even arrange transport to Accident and Emergency there and then should it be serious enough, – Sarriesfan Aug 23 at 22:15

It is a triage system that most practices have n place.

Practices keep a certain number of appointments open every day, with senior GPs, more juniors colleagues and nurse practitioners. This is so that genuinely urgent cases can refereed to a GP who will usually call back fairly quickly to discuss, in order to avoid having to go to A&R. The receptionist needs to make a decision about who to pass it on to (if at all.)

If you don't want to give any details, and it really is urgent, then say "I can't go into details because I will be overheard, but it is urgent and I would like to speak to a doctor about it as soon as possible."

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