Combat Rising Operating Costs

Rising operating costs are the most intense challenge of running a medical practice, but there are steps physicians can take to combat these increasing costs.

Medical practice executives have spoken, and their voices are sounding off in unison. Dealing with rising operating costs is the most intense challenge of running a medical practice, according to results of a recent survey by MGMA-ACMPE.

Sarah Dekutowski, CPA, manager in Draffin & Tucker’s consulting service group in Atlanta, where she focuses on the health care industry, isn’t surprised by the survey results. In fact, she acknowledges that the concern over rising operating costs can be seen across the board.

“Operating costs are going to continue to go up across all businesses, and physician practices are not immune,” Dekutowski says. “And as you know, reimbursements are cut, so any increase, even an extra thousand dollars a year, will affect the practice.”

But there are steps physicians can take, Dekutowski says, to combat rising costs.

Don’t duplicate effort

Dekutowski suggests that if medical practices are not already using an electronic medical record, it needs to be the first consideration to combating costs. The problem, however, is that practices using EMRs are still keeping paper records as well. That wastes time, efficiency and dollars.

“Staff are entering something into a paper log over here and also putting it in the computer system over there,” she explains. “If you’re dealing with the tool, deal with the tool to make sure it’s working for your staff.”

Dekutowski also encourages physicians to engage their staff in discussion. She acknowledges that there are some pain points in every practice and suggests that physicians ask, “What’s the problem? And where’s the staff frustration?” And dig into those a little bit to question why they’re doing things if they aren’t working.

“There’s always going to be issues when you first go up on a new system,” Dekutowski says. “But if you’re living with pain after a year, you have to step back and ask, ‘Okay, what do we need to fix?’ Cutting 30 minutes from a staff workday will be a benefit in the long run.”

A practice is a business

Dekutowski says that practice management systems can be of benefit, but mostly for larger practices. However, she points out that, like any other piece of technology, it’s a tool, and physicians and the practice manager have to be comfortable with it in order for the system to be used effectively.

“Nothing is going to solve your problems if you don’t understand it and engage it,” she says.

Along those lines, Dekutowski says that understanding the scope of their practice and what they’re comfortable with is one of the biggest challenges physicians face. For example, bringing in more mid-level staff like physician assistants can be beneficial, but practice management needs to understand what functions they’re performing.

“You’re always going to have those one or two shining stars in the practice who will do anything,” Dekutowski says. “But you don’t want your nurse scheduling appointments. That shouldn’t be her role. And I think what tends to happen is the wrong people are doing the wrong functions just because they tend to be better at it, even though they’re not being used effectively.”

A practice is a business

Dekutowski says that when she speaks with physicians and asks how they’re doing, too often she hears that they’re waiting to see what will happen or they’re “going with the flow.”

“You can’t just wait and see what happens,” Dekutowski admonishes. “This is your business. Physicians really have to be engaged in everything. Those that I see that are successful are the ones that are engaged.”

She suggests that physicians examine all of their expenses, but cautions them against making rash decisions like cutting out coffee and leaving it up to employees to buy their own at Starbucks. They may save a thousand dollars for the year, but staff members are quitting.

And don’t be afraid to enlist the assistance of others.

“Start picking up the phone and calling people,” Dekutowski says. “Or ask your staff, ‘What do we need to do here?’ And I know physicians have lines out the door of people who want to sell them something. But every once and a while it can’t hurt to have your practice manager talk to one of these folks … just to spark those creative juices.”