The Value of a Medical Practice Office Manager

The office manager of a medical practice is pretty vital to making sure the business runs smoothly, according to Tom Ferkovic, R.Ph, MS, managing director with SS&G Healthcare Services. He calls them the implementers, and says that every practice, large and small, needs one.

“A doctor can make decisions on a day-to-day basis in a small practice, but he or she still needs someone to implement those decisions,” Ferkovic says. “Whether or not you call them a manager, it has to be someone who is really good at implementing.”

But some physicians still need to be convinced.

Determining value

Ferkovic explains that many physicians in a small or solo practice, try to reason that they’re not very busy and believe that they can also run the practice. He suggests physicians put that theory to the test by assigning a set amount of their salary to administrative and management duties.

“It’s too easy to say, ‘I can’t afford a manager,’ but you’re not giving yourself credit if you’re doing that work,” Ferkovic explains. “By assigning a number to the administrative work being done, there’s a point where you realize that you can be a better clinician, because you can shift that dollar amount to someone who can make sure the practice runs efficiently. It allows you to value when you should bring in a manager.”

The same argument can be made in a larger practice. If one of the doctors or partners is devoting time to running the practice, assign a value to those tasks whether they’re paid for them or not.

“It’s like, is it better or more cost effective for me to hire a painter while I continue to work or should I just take the time and do the painting?” Ferkovic asks, rhetorically. “That’s really what we’re talking about here.”

Making the choice

Ann Latham, president of the Massachusetts-based consulting firm Uncommon Clarity, Inc., suggests that when hiring an office manager for a medical practice, choose natural inclinations over experience and skill. Doing otherwise, she says, means missing the boat.

“If you hire someone who has been an office manager before, it doesn’t tell you anything about how well they will fit in, or whether they’re bring energy to the job,” Latham says. “So, it’s better to look at the kind of characteristics you need in an office manager.”

Latham likens office managers in medical practices to traffic cops. They keep the traffic moving, tell people where to go and make sure things run smoothly. She says the position is part people management and part project management. And before hiring someone, it’s imperative to determine which of those two attributes is more important to your practice.

“If you have a very well-meaning, capable staff but no systems, then you need the person who is more project management oriented to create those systems and make things more orderly,” Latham explains. “On the flip side, you might have great systems but difficult people to work with. Then you need someone who is more of a people manager.”

Adding value

Ferkovic says that a good office manager will make certain that billing and collections are timely and accurate. They’ll also make sure that everybody in the practice fulfills the culture the practice is built on while the physician is seeing patients behind closed doors or making rounds at the hospital. That means answering the phones and scheduling patients according to the physician’s instructions.

A common practice can be selecting the best employee currently on staff and promoting them to office manager. However, Latham cautions against this because it can be a recipe for disaster.

“You’re gifting people into situations where they may not be the right fit for the job,” she explains. “It’s a total change in their natural inclinations.”

But, says Ferkovic, don’t simply discount your best employee, either.

“Road test them,” he suggests. “You don’t want to hurt them, but you also don’t want to hold back your best employee, because they might become a terrific manager. And it might be something they want to do. Road test them on project work over time. You may find that this person who is a good employee, technically, can’t be a good manager.”