Investment in staffing and technology makes a lasting impression on patients

September 10, 2010

Proper investment in the staffing and technology related to day-to-day operations can improve the impression your medical practice conveys and help insulate it from economic downturns and other events beyond your control.

Key Points

You know what is said about first impressions: you only get one chance to make one. And when it comes to medical practices, proper investment in the staffing and technology related to day-to-day operations can improve the impression your practice conveys and help insulate the business from economic downturns and other events beyond your control.

Success is "all about that interaction between the provider and the patient," says Virginia Martin, CMA, CPC, CHCO, CHBC, of Healthcare Consulting Associates of NW Ohio Inc., Waterville. Practices can examine several key areas to improve that interaction.

STAFF: HIRE CAREFULLY, EDUCATE THOROUGHLY, EVALUATE REGULARLY

Even with the right support staff in place, continuing education is vital, Martin says. For instance, "the issues that billing offices deal with on a day-to-day basis are monumental. Not allowing continuing education is like shooting yourself in the foot. There are so many changes in reimbursement and third-party requirements. It's important for the billing staff to know them."

Evaluating the type of staffing in the practice may yield savings, she adds. Determine whether the number of RNs, LPNs, and medical assistants in the practice reflects practice needs and whether one type of provider can meet practice needs more cost-efficiently than another.

She described pediatric practices with which she has worked that employed several RNs, thinking that staff members who talked with patients (or their parents) needed specialized clinical knowledge. "There are ways to [serve patient needs] without staffing an entire office with RNs," Martin says. "You can have policies and procedures in place, have an RN in charge of your clinical operation, and make certain that your staff members are trained in what's expected of them when they interact with patients."

When it comes to staffing appropriately for practice needs, don't assume that newly implemented technology such as an electronic health record (EHR) system will replace staff. "Reallocate staff," she says. "The beginning of conversion to an EHR is extremely labor-intensive, but once that conversion is done, let staff who formerly chased charts start chasing dollars."

GOOD CUSTOMER SERVICE ESSENTIAL

Regardless of staff members' responsibilities, educate them on the essentials of good customer service and the attitude they display toward patients on the phone and in person.

"Patients are not an inconvenience. They're our lifeline," Martin says. "Nothing says 'we don't care about you' more than ignoring them at the front desk or putting them on hold for extended periods of time. Education will circumvent potential problems."

Keeping to the appointment schedule also conveys appreciation to patients, she says. "Stay on time, and make certain that your patients feel like they're well-treated and important," she says. If delays occur, keep patients informed so that they know what to expect and can make other arrangements if necessary.

If good customer service is a challenge in the practice, identify and eliminate roadblocks to success, Martin advises. Patient surveys can help in this effort, but "if patients tell you that the wait time on the phone is too long, you need to develop some methodology to fix the issue," she says. "You create the expectation for your patients that you care about what they think, but if you don't change the issues that they bring to the floor, you indicate that you really don't care what the patients think."

Volunteers also can be a solution to customer service issues, Martin adds. "I worked with a cancer center in Florida, and they used volunteers better than anybody I've ever seen. The senior centers there are a great source of volunteers."

After completing a brief training and certification program, volunteers in the center assisted patients by keeping them company, serving them water or coffee, and transporting them from one area of the center to another so that clinical staff could concentrate on providing care. As a result, Martin says, "Patients didn't feel that wait times were excessive."

If you'd like to offer a similar service to your patients, check with your liability insurance carrier to see whether your practice's general liability policy covers volunteers, she advises. It may already do so, especially if your practice has a training and certification program in place.

Good customer service also includes "creature comfort things"-such as cable television, a fish tank, coffee, and water-that make the practice environment welcoming and pleasant, Martin says. "All of those things are important."