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The Administrator’s Desk: How to Get the Training You Need


Our monthly column just for administrators. This issue: how to get ongoing job training for yourself and your staff.

When staff members from the front office at Digestive Health Associates of Northern Michigan attend monthly training seminars, they’re not just killing time. They’re taking notes.

“We ask our receptionists to give everyone an overview at the next staff meeting of what they learned and what they got out of it,” says Gail Eminhizer, practice administrator of the nine-physician, two-site gastroenterology practice. “It’s always informal, but it makes them accountable for their time, and it helps them develop public speaking skills.”

It also, of course, gives physician owners a better idea of what they’re paying for - helping Eminhizer justify the expense. Indeed, while practice administrators are well aware of the need for continuing education (to stay abreast of regulatory changes and technology upgrades), the physicians who foot the bill sometimes need convincing.

“We’re lucky that our physicians are incredibly supportive, but I’m fearful [that without keeping them posted] they could one day say, ‘What are we getting out of this?’” Eminhizer says, adding that her office earmarks between 1 percent and 3 percent of its total revenue each year for staff training.

Like Eminhizer, practice managers who perceive the need for new skills - either from themselves or their staff - must learn to communicate with those who control the practice’s purse strings, says Drew Di Giovanni, MPH, director of education and distance learning for the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA). “In most cases,” he emphasizes, “the administrator needs to bring the training proposal to the physician and show there’s going to be a return on that education.”

Projected cost savings are perhaps the most poignant way to drive that message home. For example, Denise Alessi, practice administrator of Oak Mill Medical Associates in Niles, Ill., estimates that her office saves between $20,000 and $30,000 per employee each year by cross-training its clerical staff. Front-desk, billing, and collections employees can all pinch-hit for one another, maintaining operational consistency when someone calls in sick, eliminating the need to pay temporary help or hire additional staff.

In some cases, outside training is required, but often employees are able to train one another - provided the office takes a break from seeing patients for a few hours. “You have to accommodate that training into your schedule,” Alessi explains. “I had a receptionist who went back to school for coding and billing, and I now have her working three days as a receptionist and two days in the billing department.”

Bringing the trainer to you

When professional consultants are necessary, it’s equally critical that administrators use their training dollars wisely. For example, if a large number of staff members need training, it’s often more cost effective to bring an expert to them. For her part, Eminhizer uses in-house consultants to help her staff improve their basic job skills, such as telephone etiquette, customer service skills, and computer training. Firms like Conomikes in Los Angeles and Healthcare Facilitators in Ocoee, Fla., also provide training tailored to individual practices, including coding and documentation review, patient flow management, and physician and staff productivity.

Some of the best in-house training services, however, cost nothing at all. Many state agencies, like the health and labor departments, offer their expertise free of charge. “We tap into those agencies a lot for speakers who address things like employment law and regulations at no charge whatsoever,” says Eminhizer. “Training initiatives can definitely add up, which is why I try to utilize the inexpensive ones as much as possible. State agencies have been a very valuable resource for us.”

Going to the trainer

When only a few employees require training or certification, it’s usually necessary to send your staff to an instructor. While community colleges are an affordable option, they generally provide only generic job market education, such as training in management skills, customer service, and computer software. Courses geared toward the healthcare marketplace are best left to professional associations, which hold regular workshops on topics such as billing and coding, EMR training, and regulatory compliance. Many also offer certification.

With the advent of Web-based education, of course, off-site training does not necessarily entail travel expenses. The Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), for example, offers its Core Learning Series via distance learning. The two-part series helps healthcare managers hone their competency in professionalism, leadership, communication, organizational and analytical skills, and technology, culminating in board certification by MGMA’s American College of Medical Practice Executives. MGMA also recently launched a five-week, facilitator-led online Medical Practice Simulation course, which requires administrators to make hypothetical decisions related to purchasing, human resources, financial forecasting, and medical record keeping over a simulated three-year time span.

Likewise, the Professional Association of Health Care Office Management holds annual conferences during which it provides training and educational materials for aspiring practice managers. Through its local chapters, it also gives seminars to help administrators earn the certified medical manager (CMM) credential.

Finally, when travel is required or the cost of training is excessive, it’s often wise to use the train-the-trainer approach, in which one qualified staff member attends a workshop and brings new skills back to teach them to other staff members.

Ultimately, a successful training regimen is one that fits your budget, raises your staff’s competency, and helps your practice maintain a competitive edge. That doesn’t necessarily mean spending a fortune, says Di Giovanni. “Ultimately, whatever training you provide is going to help you run your business better by reducing costs or enhancing revenue,” he says. “And that’s good for the bottom line.”

Shelly K. Schwartz is a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., who has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for 12 years. Her work has appeared on CNNMoney.com, Bankrate.com, and in Healthy Family magazine. She can be reached via editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Physicians Practice.

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