The Administrator’s Desk: Learning From the Best

January 1, 2008

What advice do the best veteran practice administrators around have to share? We thought someone should ask them. So we did.


Sue Zumwalt doesn’t have all the answers. As the office administrator for a four-physician pediatric practice in Stockton, Calif., the 20-year industry veteran has learned the importance of cultivating a network of peers who can help her resolve issues and identify opportunities for change. “You need to have someone you can communicate with, someone else who is sitting in your seat and understands,” she says. “You can’t always communicate with your staff or even your doctors. I have different issues than anyone else in the practice.”

To that end, Zumwalt says she networks both locally and nationally, attending meetings throughout the year to exchange ideas with her peers in the field. She also subscribes to a listserv through the Professional Association of Health Care Office Management, an industry trade group, where she’s able to post questions to other members using an online bulletin board. “We’re looking at ways to revamp our schedule to get patients seen in a more timely fashion,” says Zumwalt, who recently posted a message on the board asking for possible solutions. “Within a couple of hours I had probably 20 different responses from other administrators who helped me solve the problem.”

For her part, Nancy Becker, office administrator for Renal Hypertension Physicians in Lansdale, Penn., says reading is one of her secrets to success, helping her keep abreast of new trends and regulations in the industry. “Read everything you can get your hands on,” she advises. “I go online with CMS at least once a month to make sure there’s not something going on that I should be aware of. Because what’s happening in Alabama this week could be an issue here in Pennsylvania next month.”

Over her past 30 years as a practice administrator, Becker says she’s also fine-tuned her approach to hiring staff. “Always hire someone who, during the interview process, you feel can replace you - no matter what their position,” she says. “I’ve had a dozen receptionists who went on to become administrators in other practices.”

Be flexible

If staff can change to meet the needs of their supervising mangers, so too must office managers be willing to adapt to their staff, says Candy Chapman, practice administrator for Urology Northwest in Mountlake Terrace, Wash. “Over the past few years I’ve realized I need to change how I interact with my employees instead of trying to make them conform to me and my management style,” she says. “I’ve grown a lot by learning how to give each employee what he or she needs from me.”

For example, Chapman says she interacts differently with employees from different generations. “My younger employees really need autonomy,” she says. “They want to be respected for their knowledge, get handed projects, and asked to solve problems.” In contrast, her more mature workers tend to have an old-school mentality, asking Chapman to make decisions for them. “They all have different needs,” she says.

Trust your instincts

Throughout her 35-year career in healthcare - much of it spent as a practice administrator - Marge McQuade says she learned firsthand the most important lesson in being an effective leader: Trust your instincts. “I once worked for a doctor who was an absolute nightmare,” she recalls. “The first week on the job he told me to fire one of my staff in another office I had only visited once. He just didn’t like her. It was personal, and it was really just a trial for me to see if I would do it.”

Looking back, McQuade, now retired, says she should have refused: “I should have demanded to know what she was doing wrong and found out if we were giving her any opportunity to fix it.” McQuade left that practice shortly thereafter and made it a point to speak her mind with subsequent employers. “I left practices over the years because I didn’t agree with the way the doctors wanted them managed,” she says. “You have to stay true to yourself.”

Throughout their careers, practice administrators will face a steady stream of stumbling blocks, challenges, and opportunities for professional growth. Those who embrace the wisdom of industry veterans will be far better positioned to succeed. “I was lucky to have a manager that I worked under for eight years that I admire greatly,” says Zumwalt. “We all have the same issues and problems, which is why it’s incredibly useful to have a mentor.”

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 January 2008 issue of Physicians Practice.