Practice Pointers: The benefits of cross-training staff

July 8, 2005

The more jobs your employees can do, the better it is for them, for you, and for your patients.

"Cross-training employees is a form of enlightened self-interest," says Kenneth T. Hertz, a consultant with the Medical Group Management Association and former administrator of an 11-physician surgical group. "It's also smart practice management and good customer relations."

Certain functions-front desk, billing, and collections-lend themselves to cross-training. "It's important that the billers know how the collectors work and vice versa, and the front-desk people should be knowledgeable about those functions, too," says Hertz.

A win/win proposition for you and your staff It's hard to think of a downside to cross-training. You might have to close the office for a half-day or a full day every few months to get the training done. Or you might need to write a check to an off-site venue where you send employees for additional training. But the benefits are numerous.

"We save $30,000 to $50,000 a year because we don't use temp agencies, and haven't in eight years," says Chris Kelleher, administrator of a 10-physician ob/gyn practice in Columbia, SC, which cross-trains all clerical and some clinical employees. "If you need to hastily move someone into a different slot, you don't have to fumble and they don't have to learn at the physicians' or patients' expense."

Additional benefits of cross-training:

It allows for consistency of operation. When employees learn the particulars of other jobs in the office, they know the requisite policies and procedures, what paperwork is required, where needed materials are, and so forth. In other words, people don't have to wing it-with all the error-prone dangers that implies-if they're called upon to temporarily fill a vacant slot.

It increases options. Ken Hertz sees cross-training as almost a necessity in a small group, because the practice can remain functional when key people move on, get sick, or take a vacation. "In larger practices, if people are cross-trained you're well-positioned if you have to trim your workforce," says Hertz, who's based in Alexandria, LA. "That's something we don't like to think about, but we're certainly seeing it a lot."

Cross-training is even useful in filling small gaps, like when a worker takes lunch. The medical records person at the multispecialty Sunrise Medical Center in Phoenix learned how to field phone calls, schedule appointments, greet patients, and collect copays, so that she can step in when the front-desk clerk steps out, says Kelly Chrisbacher, the practice's office manager.