Communication is Key to Maximizing Practice Staff

Many physicians are unfamiliar with how to run their medical practices as businesses, according to Drew Stevens, Ph.D., president of the Stevens Consulting Group. The missing ingredient, he says, is communication. And the omission of communication results in the inability to maximize a medical practice’s staff.

“At the end of the day, [all medical practice staff members] are responsible for one thing, and that’s patient care,” Stevens says. “You cannot have any degree of validity of taking care of a patient is nobody understands what the next person is supposed to do. And what I often find is that there’s a negative atmosphere and a negative culture (in the practice) because the physician is not communicating with staff.”

There are some procedures physicians can employ to get the most out of their medical staff and, not surprisingly, they all involve some form of improved communication.

Best practices

Jeanne Smith, CPA and partner in tax and strategic business services for CPA firm Weaver, says there are both obvious and little known practices physicians can begin to employ. Among the more obvious is cross training and keeping staff morale high by discouraging personal activities during the day. The former, she says, is easy to do in a medical practice because there are often routine functions that must be performed.

“We encourage the medical staff to shadow each other so that they are cross trained, and to ask each other not only how to do something, but why a task is done that way,” Smith says. “You can pick up a lot of efficiencies just from another person’s approach to a task.”

Smith also encourages physician practices to utilize the best technology available. She admits that there are hidden costs for both technology as well as human resources, but not investing in technology could cost more in the long run.

“The machine is going to be there every day,” Smith says. “And you don’t have the HR costs or the company benefits associated with it.”

Get feedback

Stevens says that too often a culture is established in a medical practice where staff members are fearful about speaking up. What develops then, he says, is not just a culture of fear, but a culture of guardianship where nobody benefits.

“When you have guardianship, what happens is you’ll have a situation where something needs to be stated to the physician, but nobody wants to tell him,” Stevens explains. “Good, bad or indifferent, there’s no trust, and there’s no respect.”

Stevens believes that a negative culture can be repaired but cautions that the practice needs to employ the right people — those who want to change the organization.

“It’s always about hiring the right people, because you can’t change people,” he says. “You can change the culture, but you have to make sure you have the right people in that culture.”

Smith suggests developing a shared vision for the entire medical practice to follow as a way to avoid a negative culture. Physicians need to set some measurable goals, such as how many patients the practice will see each month or each quarter, and how many patients the practice needs to see in order to cover overhead.

“As simple as those may seem, they’re not always thought of when setting up a practice, or even years into a practice,” Smith says. “And then once you establish those visions, communicate them to your medical staff.”

She also believes it’s important, and effective, to document every process performed by the practice staff, and then break down those processes into job descriptions. A simple way to do this, Smith says, is to determine how many hands touch patient information in the course of a day. If that number is 20, and you can narrow it down to 10, then the practice is going to operate much more efficiently.

Recognize achievement

In the process of getting the most out of your practice staff, don’t forget to reward and recognize individuals for their efforts. That can be as simple as giving someone a certificate of achievement, or writing a quick note on a thank-you card.

“People just want to know that they make a difference,” Stevens says.

Sometimes, he adds, that “difference” comes from allowing employees to make decisions.

“There are times people look to the leader to make a decision, but there’s no reason why the nurse or office manager couldn’t ask, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ And the doctor should answer, ‘It’s your office. Run with it,’” Stevens says. “The most successful offices that I’ve been to are those where reward and recognition are very high.”