According to Greek legend, the name of the dog that guarded the entrance to the underworld was [a] Fido, [b] Rover, [c] Mr Shnuckums or [d] Cerberus?

If you answered ‘a” or ‘b’ you clearly have a healthy relationship with dogs but a woeful lack of knowledge of Greek mythology. More time listening to Mr Crawford in school assembly and less pulling Sally Moffat’s, pigtails would have been useful. If you answered ‘c’, well I don’t know what to say but you should probably consider pets other than dogs. No, the answer was of course ‘d’ Cerberus.

Cerberus guarded the underworld. And I have always wondered about Cerberus. Why exactly would you need a guard dog to prevent entry to the underworld? I’ve always thought of Hades as rather like post-Brexit Britain – nobody actually wants to come in. Indeed, staying out of Hades was the principal life objective of the ancient Greeks. Along with all that vaguely homoerotic Leonidas-and-his-300-Spartan-heroes stuff. Either way, whether you were rubbing oil into each other’s pecs or writing sonnets to Apollo, the idea was to stay out of Hades. I think it’s fair to say that Hades had very little in the way of voluntary clientele. And as far as I know there was no passing traffic. So Cerberus presumably served to keep people within Hades as much as without.

That takes a special kind of dog. Let’s face it, we are not talking miniature poodles here. No chihuahuas, Pekinese or dachshunds need apply. The job is way above their pay grade. No, this job calls for a very big dog – something that doesn’t fit with any of the Crufts breed standards. Something huge. Think great Dane or American mastiff. Then double its size. Something with the jaws of a pitbull and a slavering mouth filled with lots of enormous and very sharp teeth. Oh yes, before I forget, three heads. That’s right – count them. Three. And a matted fur of snakes. Throw in a short temper and you have it. Walkies.

The stuff of legends you might think. And yet we encounter the modern equivalent of Cerberus almost everyday. A creature so fearsome and intimidating that we quake at its mere mention. A creature unyielding in defence of its territory. I’m talking of course of the modern medical receptionist. A beast with one purpose in life – to prevent you from speaking to your doctor. Of course not all of them have three heads (except in rare rural communities) and the snakes are no longer a mandatory part of the uniform. Some may even, to the casual observer, seem comparatively normal. You wouldn’t even necessarily spot them in the street. But in their natural habitat, between you and the waiting room, behind a screen of glass or Perspex, they hold dominion, like a pride of lions.

Cerberus: “Yes?”
You: “Can I have an appointment with the doctor please?”
Cerberus: “Why?”
You: “Because I think I’m unwell.”
Cerberus: “Are you well or unwell?”
You: “I don’t know. I was hoping the doctor would tell me.”
Cerberus: “Well he’s very busy. What’s wrong with you?”
You: “I’d rather not say here.”
Cerberus: “I can’t decide if you’re unwell then”.
You: “Perhaps the doctor could decide what’s wrong with me?”
Cerberus: “He’s very busy. I told you.”
You: “Can I please just have appointment with the doctor?”
Cerberus: “Don’t take that tone with me!”
You: “What tone?”
Cerberus: “Like you have a right to see the doctor.”
You: “Isn’t that the case?”
Cerberus: “I’m just doing my job. If you don’t like it, you can go elsewhere.”
You: “I don’t want to go elsewhere. I just want to see a doctor.”
Cerberus: “Why?”
You: “We’ve discussed that.”

And so on, ad absurdam.

Pitting their own wits against your reluctance to publicly divulge the location of those sores, or the frequency and explosivity of your bowel movements, the medical receptionists are unassailable. None shall pass. A top-level medical receptionist can keep a waiting room empty on their own. A few louder than necessary questions about that rash has even the most strong willed fleeing.

What deranged model of healthcare seriously proposed that the receptionists could triage patients safely? And this is not necessarily a criticism of the receptionists per se but they should not be put in that position. How many patients have suffered unduly because their condition was not deemed important enough to warrant an appointment with the doctor? So many conditions present with similar signs and symptoms that they are indistinguishable to the unskilled eye.

This is not the medicine from my father’s day. For 40 years a GP in Doncaster, his receptionists ushered in the anxious and soothed the stressed. They did not ask impudent questions. They did not humiliate in the name of triage. That was not their job. My father saw them all. If they came to the surgery feeling unwell, they would be seen. Even without appointments. And if they could not come to the surgery, he would go to them. Think about that for a moment. When did you last have your doctor come to you?

But the last quarter century has somehow bred these monstrous self aggrandising creatures who take it upon themselves to block the channel to consultation. Or maybe I just don’t understand – perhaps receptionists are more highly qualified than doctors to make medical decisions. Maybe their three day telephone answering course gives them greater clinical insight than seven years at medical school. Perhaps they know instinctively that your recent bowel problems are just indigestion and not Crohn’s disease. The same with your shortness of breath – they know it’s hayfever and not lung cancer. I wonder how many doctors know what their receptionists are doing.

This is where I put in my usual caveat – you know the kind of thing. “It’s a small proportion of receptionists who give the rest a bad name”. That sort of thing.

We’ll never know because we’ll never get close enough to the doctor to find out.