I had an inspiring conversation with a young physician recently. He is looking forward to one day owning a practice. He envisions himself establishing a practice ethos that encourages colleagueship and respects physician excellence. “Expert culture,” he says, is the key to physician engagement and avoiding burnout.
His passion was infectious. I can’t help be animated by the idea of brilliant doctors motivating each other to be even better! Moreover, like many of us in healthcare, I’m concerned about the rise in physician burnout, and I agree with this ambitious doctor that more respect for expertise could help alleviate it.
But a question occurred to me as we were talking: What about applying the same thinking to the business side of medicine?
The idea of setting a similar standard of professionalism for administration may not be intuitively obvious. It only makes sense that clinical expertise is king in our practices. Sometimes, though, even unintentionally, acknowledging this can translate into a more casual attitude about the administrative work being done to support the practice of medicine. This can mean that important business pillars of the practice are not as strong as they could be.
This is not unique to medicine. It’s become a cliché that law firms, for example, often struggle with business management, despite being populated by brainy overachievers. Many fast-growing startups are created by smart people with an avid interest in a particular invention, technology, or service—and less interest in the daily nuts-and-bolts of management, which gets the short shrift. In all these examples, when management takes too much of a back seat, the financial success of the organization—and even the ability to achieve the core mission—may suffer.
Adopting the same professional standards on the business side that you aim for on the clinical side can help avoid unnecessary costs. What’s more, it can encourage profitability and growth, building the value of your asset. It can also make your practice a much more pleasant place to work!
So what are the hallmarks of a professional practice organization? Here are a few:
Formalized, forward-thinking human resources policies
Small businesses of all stripes are notorious for casual approaches to hiring decisions, including employing relatives and friends. The reasoning is always the same: trust. But over the long term, taking a less professional approach to hiring will make it difficult to attract the skilled employees needed to help your practice grow. Because of the unbalanced dynamic it creates, many talented practice management professionals simply refuse to work in a practice where a spouse or other relative is employee.
Similarly, the kind of driven and meticulous employees you most desire for your practice will also want to know they’ll be able to grow professionally. Consciously creating policies that enable employees to develop their skills and make career progress will help you retain your best people. Examples include formal job descriptions, career paths, and a budget and policies for continuing education for non-clinicians.
These steps will not just help you hire and retain the best people, the investment in development will help them bring new skills to your practice that can help it thrive.
When an organization is small and growing, a few people may end up, by default, doing all the decision-making—and they may feel time-constrained and make decisions based purely on instinct. But developing a more data-driven culture can help your practice make better decisions and reduce risk. Using data allows others to contribute ideas that can be objectively evaluated, giving them a chance to shine professionally, and your business a chance to explore new options you otherwise might not have considered.
Becoming more data-driven also enables a closer handle on practice profitability. Building these habits can help you project your financial performance as the year unfolds and avoid surprises at year end or tax time.
Meetings or memos can seem like a waste of precious time in a small organization. But it doesn’t take long for lack of communication (or even a perceived lack of communication) to undermine employees’ trust. If it feels to employees like all decisions are made behind closed doors, for example, they might believe they’re on shaky ground, and that can lead to turnover.
On the other hand, making the effort to communicate on a regular basis not only reassures employees, it engages them in the work of your practice.
Respect for roles, organization, and boundaries
Creating a formal structure is another way to help assure employees that decisions that affect them will be made in predictable ways. Knowing that managers’ authority will be respected helps ensure that decisions are made fairly, and that employees aren’t encouraged to engage in time-wasting disputes or to go over their manager’s head.
This can be hard for owners to adapt to at first. When owning a business, it’s tempting to want to make exceptions when you feel like it, even if your professional managers have a different perspective. But, in the long run, creating a structure with clear reporting lines frees the people at the top for more important tasks. Plus, it allows others on staff to feel sure about who can make day-to-day decisions, and how they’ll do so.
If your practice is small, it may seem like overkill to implement these at your current stage. But in business, we have an expression, “Dress for the job you want.” The idea is that even when you’re in a more junior role, you can present the image and attitude—to yourself, not just to others—that you’re aiming higher. Remember, too, that being more organized doesn’t mean giving up on a warm and supportive work environment. In fact, creating more structure can have the opposite effect, since predictability allows people to relax and focus on their work.
Laurie Morgan, MBA is a partner and senior consultant for Capko & Morgan. Her consulting focuses on practice management effectiveness and practice profitability. She is the author of the book People, Technology, Profit: Practical Ideas for a Happier, Healthier Practice business as well as the Management Rx series of e-books, and blogs at capko.com/blog.