Front office investments improve practice overall

April 10, 2011

In a physician practice, front-office staff members are often treated as the least necessary employees. These employees, however, meet and greet patients, schedule their visits, collect co-payments, and field phone calls.

Key Points

Let's face it: In a physician practice, front-office staff members often are treated as the least-necessary employees.

These employees, however, meet and greet your patients, schedule their visits, collect their co-payments, and field their phone calls. They are indispensable members of your staff. They play an integral role in practice operations. If they are off their game, you are likely to be, too. The entire practice may be affected. From patient flow to patient loyalty, how the front office performs directly affects your bottom line.

To anyone with a master of business administration degree, this observation would be an obvious one. But to many people with medical degrees, experts groan in exasperation, it isn't obvious at all. And their practices often pay the price.

"If you are immersed only in patient care, the practice will suffer," Sikorski says. "The doctor must get involved not just in the management of patient care but also in the management of the practice, including the front office."

Yes, you may have a practice manager whose responsibility includes daily oversight of front office personnel. But you, as the practice leader, have a key role to play, too.

"In any practice where customer care is important, the front office can make you or break you," Sikorski says. "If the doctor is not involved, I promise you that practice will not be as profitable as it should be."

What sort of constructive role could you assume as the leader of your practice? Experts offer the following seven suggestions. Each is powerful and empowering and requires a minimal amount of time.

1. SET AN EXAMPLE BY SHOWING RESPECT

"Too often, front-office staffers are made to feel like second-class citizens in a practice," says Jim Grigsby, a practice management consultant in Melbourne, Florida. "They're the least-educated and least-paid members of the practice, and they're often disrespected by clinical and back-room staffers as a result."

That assessment applies to some doctors as well. For respect to be genuine, he says, it's necessary to develop appreciation.

Although patients come to your practice for medical care, the clinical staff doesn't represent the practice in their eyes. On the contrary, it's the employees in the front office.

"They are the first people a patient sees when she comes into the practice and the last people she sees when she leaves," Sikorski says. First impressions are important-and, often, permanent.

Moreover, your front-office staff will have ample time to make a first impression, good or bad, because a patient is likely to spend more time with them while sitting in the reception room than with the entire rest of your staff combined.

Woodcock cautions against taking a myopic view of the people who work in your front office. They are not just answerers of phones and makers of appointments. They are your practice ambassadors-your marketing department, your public relations agency, and your bureau of patient satisfaction rolled into one. Patient loyalty (or lack of it) is largely in their hands.

"The number one area by which new patients will judge your office is the front desk," says Marty Linz, who has spent the past 35 years managing primary care, cardiology, neurology, oncology, urology, surgery, psychiatry, and dermatology practices in New York. "The front desk should never be undervalued. It's the pulse and heart of the office."

Michael J. Bernardo, MD, the lead physician in a family practice with three doctors, three midlevel providers, and a total of 20 employees in Newberry, South Carolina, views his front office staff as being integral to the care offered by his practice rather than being separate and distinct from clinical operations.

"The healing process begins as soon as the patient walks in the door-or it should," he says.

To show respect for the folks in front, it's the little things that count. Know and address each staff member by name, Woodcock advises. Recognition, acknowledgement, and appreciation by you are important. Be generous with all three. "Thank you" and "great job the other day" go a long way, particularly when the words come from the lead physician.

Demonstrate by example that you respect and value the front-office staff, and others will follow your lead.

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