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Resolving the employee shortage in medical practices

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Exploring practical strategies to address staffing shortages in medical practices and ensure the delivery of quality patient care.

help wanted | © Andrey Popov - stock.adobe.com

© Andrey Popov - stock.adobe.com

In American health care, we are experiencing declining reimbursements and rising overheads. The modern health care provider faces the challenge of balancing efficient health care with the tsunami of paperwork that is increasing staff burnout and motivating doctors to take early retirement. The health care industry faces an unprecedented challenge: staffing shortages in medical practices. This crisis, exacerbated by factors such as an aging population, increased demand for available health care services, and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21 prompted a need for solutions to this crisis, which is impacting many practices. In this article, I will explore practical strategies to address staffing shortages in medical practices and ensure the delivery of quality patient care.

Embracing technology and the use of the virtual assistant

One promising solution is the integration of technology into practices to streamline administrative tasks and improve efficiency. Implementing electronic health records (EHR) systems, telemedicine platforms and automated scheduling tools can reduce the burden on administrative staff, freeing up their time for more critical tasks. Additionally, artificial intelligence can be used for tasks such as data entry, allowing staff to focus on patient-facing responsibilities.

The pandemic brought an alternative solution for the delivery of health care: telemedicine. Since 2020, doctors have become comfortable treating patients virtually and have realized that good care can be provided without a patient being eyeball-to-eyeball with a doctor.

The pandemic also made it possible for health care employees to work remotely. With the pandemic now posing less risk to workers, many employees wish to continue to work outside of the office. Hiring a virtual assistant (VA) is now an option that practices are embracing, and many practices have found that efficiency and productivity are maintained when employees are in the office.

Using a VA

VAs are trained to manage all administrative tasks for a medical office. They can manage incoming calls. They can answer patient billing questions, provide information, manage prescriptions and referrals, and perform other administrative tasks. This increases practice efficiency, patient satisfaction and productivity.

One of the most beneficial aspects of VAs is their ability to handle appointment scheduling with fewer errors than an on-site receptionist or scheduler who is multitasking and managing multiple patients simultaneously. Patients don't have to leave messages to schedule, reschedule, or cancel appointments, thus reducing the number of missed calls and decreasing the workload of the front desk staff, who can concentrate on other aspects of patient care.

A well-trained VA can follow up with patients after their visit, including scheduling recall appointments, and perform social media management and reputation management. Also, tasks such as medical transcription, administrative support, faxing, and general appointment scheduling can be handled efficiently by a skilled VA.

A VA is available at a fraction of the cost of hiring an additional staff member, but these cost savings maintain the quality of service you provide to your patients. It can even enhance the patient experience.

The benefits of a VA also accrue with the patient's experience with the practice. With a VA, patients have shorter telephone hold times and quicker access to information, leading to higher patient satisfaction. Appointment accuracy and efficiency improvement translate to shorter waiting times to gain access to the practice, thus increasing the overall patient experience.

Hiring a VA

Key points to consider when hiring a VA for a medical practice include the following:

  1. Tasks and responsibilities. Provide the VA with a clear job description. Consider listing the specific tasks and responsibilities you want the VA to handle. This could include appointment scheduling, answering phone calls, managing emails, updating patient records, and handling other administrative duties.
  2. Medical knowledge and training. We suggest hiring a VA with a health care or medical administration background. Familiarity with medical terminology and processes can help the assistant integrate seamlessly into the practice. Consider hiring a previous employee who knows your practice, your process of care, and the other employees.
  3. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Actcompliance. Given the sensitive nature of health care information, ensure that the VA understands and complies with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations. Protecting patient confidentiality is crucial, so the VA should be well-versed in privacy and security measures.
  4. Technology proficiency. Ensure the VA is proficient in the technology and software used in your medical practice. This may include EHR systems, appointment scheduling software, telehealth platforms, and other relevant tools.
  5. Communication skills. Effective communication is essential in a medical practice. The VA should have excellent written and verbal communication skills to interact with patients, colleagues, and referring physicians.
  6. Availability and time zone considerations. The VA does not need to be located near your practice. A VA might be a new parent who wants to work from home, a recently retired employee, or a previous receptionist or coder from your practice. If your medical practice serves patients across time zones, consider these factors when establishing a work schedule to ensure adequate coverage. If your practice has patients who speak a language other than English, consider looking for a multilingual VA.
  7. Trial period. Consider starting the VA with a trial period to assess their performance and compatibility with the medical practice. This will allow you to adjust, if needed, and ensure that the arrangement meets your expectations.
  8. Remote work setup. Ensure the VA has a secure and private workspace for handling medical information. Discuss technical requirements, such as a reliable internet connection and specific software or hardware needs.
  9. Training and onboarding. Provide comprehensive training and onboarding to familiarize the VA with your medical practice's policies, procedures and workflows. This may involve virtual training sessions, documentation and ongoing support.
  10. Virtual attendance. If you have regular staff meetings, invite the VA to attend them. Just because they are not physically in the office doesn't mean they are not part of your team.

Hiring a VA for a medical practice can increase efficiency and cost-effectiveness, allowing health care personnel to focus on patient care. However, careful consideration of the medical field's unique needs and regulatory requirements is essential throughout the hiring process.

Although I don't have any data to support the possibility that a VA will reduce the no-show rate of patients, I believe that this possibility should motivate practices to consider hiring a VA, especially if they are experiencing a high no-show rate.

Cross-training and skill diversification

To mitigate staffing shortages, medical practices can invest in cross-training employees to perform multiple roles. For instance, administrative staff could receive basic clinical training to assist with nonspecialized patient care tasks. This approach helps fill immediate gaps and fosters a more versatile and resilient workforce.

Competitive compensation and benefits

Competitive compensation packages and comprehensive benefits are crucial to attracting and retaining skilled health care workers. Practices should regularly review their salary structures and benefits offerings to remain competitive in the health care job market. This includes financial incentives and perks like professional development opportunities, wellness programs, mental health screenings and work-life balance initiatives.

Bottom line

The staffing shortages at medical practices present a challenge that requires a multifaceted solution. Medical practices can navigate this crisis more effectively by embracing technology, encouraging cross-training, providing competitive compensation, and implementing recruitment and retention initiatives. By addressing the root causes of staffing shortages and fostering a resilient health care workforce, we can ensure that medical practices continue to deliver high-quality patient care in the face of ongoing challenges.

Neil Baum, MD, a Professor of Clinical Urology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. Dr. Baum is the author of several books, including the best-selling book, Marketing Your Medical Practice-Ethically, Effectively, and Economically, which has sold over 225,000 copies and has been translated into Spanish. He contributes a weekly video for Medical Economics on practical ideas to enhance productivity and efficiency in medical practices.His 5–7-minute videos and short articles provide practical ideas that can be easily implemented and incorporated into any medical practice. Dr. Baum can be reached at doctorwhiz@gmail.com.

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