The Importance of Engaging Your Medical Practice Staff

January 2, 2013
Shelly K. Schwartz

Here are some easy ways to inspire your staff to excel.

If you take a job at Hollingshead Eye Center in Boise, Idaho, don't expect any pats on the back from coworkers on your birthday. In fact, you should not expect to see them at all. The three-provider ophthalmology practice gives each of its 40 staff members the day off when their birthday falls during the workweek - just to say thanks. "Holidays can be really hard, because it's a loss for the company when everyone needs the day off, but birthdays are easy to celebrate," says financial and operations officer Louis Pennow. "It doesn't cost us a thing and we can easily find someone to fill in for a day."

The office also rewards its employees with gift cards to the movies, a favorite store, or a local restaurant on the date of their hiring anniversary - sending e-mail alerts to the rest of the staff asking them to stop by and wish their coworker a "happy anniversary." The size of the gift is commensurate with the length of time they've worked for the practice. The reason for all the fuss, according to Pennow, is simple: Management at his practice understands the importance of keeping staff motivated and recognizing their contribution to its success.

Such gestures have the added benefit of keeping the mental cobwebs out of the cubicles, says practice management consultant Owen Dahl, a former practice administrator. "We can all get into a rut," says Dahl. "You've been there for five years and you start doing things the way you've always done them without looking for ways to improve."

Communicate expectations

Apart from staff recognition, Dahl notes administrators who wish to keep their staff engaged must make it a point to communicate their goals for each individual employee and for the practice as a whole. "Talk to them," he says. "Tell them what you're doing, what you're trying to accomplish, and what their role in the practice is."

Perhaps you want your receptionist to answer the phone in three rings, your billing department to post charges within 24 hours, or the entire practice to achieve top scores on patient satisfaction surveys. Set measurable goals for each employee, hold them accountable for meeting them, and reward them with incentives along the way, Dahl says, noting the rewards you provide need not break the bank. A Friday off during the summer months, a handwritten thank-you note from the physicians, gift cards to Starbucks, or small quarterly bonuses can inspire your staff better than a single raise on their annual review, he says.

To that end, Pennow says Hollingshead Eye Center did away with the annual raise years ago, opting instead to give supervisors in each department the green light to distribute merit-based raises whenever they feel it's warranted. "That way they have the flexibility to say, 'Hey, we appreciate the job you are doing and we think you deserve more money,' even if it's only been three months," he says.

Grow your staff

You can also motivate your troops by offering opportunities for career development, says Bill Rabourn, a consultant with Medical Consulting Group in Springfield, Mo. Allow time off for training and certification courses and, if you can afford it, reimbursement for continuing education, which benefits both the employee and your practice. "It's important to acknowledge upfront during the hiring process that your goal is to grow your staff," says Rabourn. "You want the people who want to grow, and you need to be able to give them a formalized program that allows them to do that."

Here again, it need not be a budget buster. You can start by training your staff to perform other job functions within their department - a concept known as cross-training. But let the people who do the jobs provide the training, which fosters a sense of empowerment. Such methods, widely embraced in other industries, help keep your staff motivated, create an atmosphere of mutual respect, and give managers greater scheduling flexibility when one employee calls in sick.

It's all about challenging your staff to elevate their game, says Dahl. If the money's not in the budget to send all your employees to a training class, appoint one person from each department to attend and ask them to report back at the next staff meeting what they've learned. Likewise, says Dahl, consider sending a different employee each month to the local networking events in your area - a show of confidence in their ability to represent your practice.

Seek understanding

Lastly, if you notice that your staff members are off their game, try to identify the source of the problem. Perhaps they're bored, which can be solved by teaching your staff new skills, or rewarding them more often. But amid economic uncertainty and changes in the healthcare arena, it may also be fear about job security that is keeping them from setting new goals, says Dahl. "Given market conditions today, there's a lot of fear on the part of employees who are worried about a potential merger or being bought by a hospital."

Others may be concerned about the financial stability of your practice, and how that impacts them. "You need to communicate with your staff and be honest," says Dahl, noting information that may impact their job should be shared as early as possible. "The goal is to maintain a level of trust with your employees. If you treat them fairly and get them involved in the performance of your practice they're going to be on your side."

Keeping your staff engaged is a worthy goal - but it doesn't just happen, says Maryann Roefaro, chief executive of Hematology-Oncology Associates of Central New York in East Syracuse, N.Y. It's the role of management to create avenues for professional growth and encourage staff to embrace new challenges.

"A rut exists when a void in personal or professional fulfillment is present," says Roefaro, who authored the book "Building the Team from the Inside-Out - A Multidimensional View of Leadership." "A leader can provide opportunities for transformation and growth, and it's not by removing adversity, as it will always exist in some form. It's about the thoughts and perspectives of that adversity - finding the highest good and opportunity in every challenge."

Shelly K. Schwartz,a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for more than 17 years. Her work has appeared on CNBC.com, CNNMoney.com, and Bankrate.com. She can be reached via editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Physicians Practice.