How doctors can work best with one another might seem an odd topic for a management consultant. After all, a good consultant (or good executive) knows how important it is to stay in her lane. The expertise that guides most of the work physicians do is far beyond our scope.
But a successful manager's job often involves building teams of people of experts — experts far smarter about their subject matter than the manager could ever be. There's a lot to learn from the experiences of executives in creating those expert teams.
Medicine has some things in common with the tech industry, where I began my career. Creating new media properties in the early days of the internet revolution, I learned about building teams of brilliant thoroughbreds with rare skills that I didn't possess myself.
The engineers who build the tech tools we use every day are driven to solve problems and absorbed with their work. The nature of coding requires intense focus and that can make teamwork seem less valuable — even wasteful at times. (Sound familiar?) Yet my engineer colleagues and I quickly learned that when brilliant individuals support each other, everyone can succeed faster. A shared sense of mission also lets everyone enjoy their jobs more, even when workloads are heavy. The trick is to create team opportunities that help everyone stay connected without adding too many extra obligations.
If you're a practice owner who's employing physician colleagues, you might be as wary of teams as engineers can be. After all, every physician has their own patients to focus on – that's just the nature of the job. This may be why teamwork doesn't seem to emerge organically in many practice settings; it's not obvious how it helps. However, when you intentionally create opportunities for you and your physicians to connect, it can pay off in many ways, including:
• Steeper learning curve and higher productivity: Most practices we've worked with don't put a lot of energy into onboarding new physicians. There is a "throw them in the deep end of the pool" culture in medicine that probably starts in academic training. While your new doctors may be game to tough it out in their early years, failing to nurture your new hires is costly. Consider how much a new physician has to learn that is unrelated to clinical practice. The learning curve is enormous — and the longer your new doctor is on it, the less productive they'll be. Recent graduates may have no idea how to work with staff, efficiently document and code, attract new patients, or reach target productivity (among many other things). Teaming up with a mentor can help a new doctor become productive more quickly. And encouraging all your doctors to connect as a team, sharing best practices and problems solved, helps all your clinicians continue learning — and avoid inefficiencies that undermine their efforts.
•Faster problem-solving: When doctors don't realize they're not the only ones experiencing problems like repetitive claims denials and inefficient EHR templates, it takes longer to expose them so the right person can fix them. Sometimes, one doctor may have found a solution that works great for themselves and might help others, too, but there's no convenient means to share it. Silos develop organically because of physicians' focus on their own busy practices. Regular physician meetings, email groups, and other tools to keep your physicians connected can bust the siloes and make shared problem-solving easier, while reinforcing a sense of teamwork.
• Culture and morale: It's no secret that morale in medicine is low across the board. Many doctors report feeling isolated — even burned out — and it's not always obvious how physicians can or should support each other. Encouraging a shared culture, even as each doctor manages his own practice within the practice, can make your workplace more friendly and supportive. This isn't just a touchy-feely idea; it can help you avoid negative energy that leads to costly turnover and low productivity. Consciously creating a shared culture also helps guide your patient experience and engage your employees more fully. It even helps with your hiring process by making it easier to define the elusive quality of "fit."
Just as with engineering teams, time is a physician's most precious resource. Physicians don't want to waste time on meetings or team-building efforts that are too long, too frequent, or too demanding. But that desire to avoid waste can translate into no team building at all in practice and that's a missed opportunity. Finding a balance that allows your physicians to connect with and support each other will help keep your practice, and everyone in it, running at peak performance.