Bursting Your Bubble

On my way from San Diego airport last week to the lovely Keating Hotel in the Gaslamp District, our cab driver asked us what the conference was about. “It’s about four days of family physicians grousing about how lousy their job is,” I joked. I was only half-joking. I have a ton of respect for family physicians, who (often thanklessly) serve as the backbone of patient care in this country.

In nearly every presentation I attended over the four-day conference, it seemed that someone uttered some variation of the phrase, “The decline of the family practice model.” And, yes, it was a little depressing at times. But it was uplifting at other times. Like during the session titled, “Improve Office Efficiency: Making the Difference with Prepared, Proactive Clinical Teams,” by Bertha Safford MD, and Cynthia Manning, MA.

Despite the forgettable session title, things got lively the minute Safford (Bertie to her friends) and Manning involved the large crowd of attendees with a quick crowd survey of “things a viable, engaged team could take off your plate.” The list quickly grew to include: Make follow-up calls to patients; find out what medications the patient is taking; obtain prior authorizations; and know and understand patients’ insurance plans, among many others. Safford joked that most physicians consider a team approach as simply, “Whichever person we delegate a task to, everyone knows they’re supposed to be doing it.”

Safford and Manning offered specific, practical advice around an abstract concept (team-building), and tackled head-on, with frankness and humor, the common explanations physicians use in defending their team approach. Such objections are usually along the lines of, “There’s nothing wrong with MY staff! We work just fine together!” Not so fast, said the presenters. The simple fact is that physicians are often at the top of the work hierarchy, and they work “in a bubble” in which staff members often tell them only what they want to hear.

So, what can you do to create a more proactive, more productive, and happier team? It may sound simple, but Safford and Manning suggest regular retreats away from the practice that can be used as feedback sessions. They also recommend taking time out to address each member of your staff with specific questions, such as, “How well do we work together as a team,” or, “What could help us work better.”

Sounds obvious, right? You’re already doing this… right? Of course you are. If so, feel free to skip some of the helpful hints below:

  • Conflict in small doses and presented constructively can be a good thing; it means your staff is working together to resolve issues
  • It’s crucial to both give and receive feedback
  • Forming a team is more than delegating; it’s a culture change
  • “Culture trumps strategy every time,” said Safford…so hire to fit the culture of your practice
  • Benefits of building an interactive team include improved clinical outcomes, improved staff morale, better patient satisfaction, and last but not least, happier doctors.