Wanna Get Away?

April 1, 2010

It’s tough to get away from the office without worrying you’ll come back to a mountain of work. But taking time for yourself is crucial. Here’s advice on doing it right.


You know a vacation is in order when you’re putting out office fires while giving birth. “I don’t think I’ve really been away from work - ever,” says Cheris Craig, chief administrative officer for Urology of Greater Atlanta. “Even in labor and delivery I was answering calls.”

With seven offices, seven physicians, and 63 staff members, she notes, it’s nearly impossible to put her responsibilities on hold while she takes time off. “I take my job with me when I leave,” says Craig. “I check voice mail, answer e-mails.”

Most recently, on her trip across the country to visit family, she had to help one of her doctors who, on a trip to Panama, couldn’t dial out internationally. “I was in Seattle and I had to call Verizon to figure out if their Blackberry network was down or what was happening,” she says. During another break, Craig recalls, the fire inspector showed up and her staff tracked her down to find out what to do. And inevitably, someone calls in sick during her absence. “I get the message and either I have to call the person I put in charge of staffing to find a replacement, or I get it resolved myself,” she says. “Either way, I’m making a phone call. That’s the way it’s always been.”

Indeed, in the digital age of communication it can be tough to unplug when you’re trying to unwind. It’s even harder when you’re the one managing virtually every aspect of your practice, from payroll and personnel to income and overhead. “I work with a lot of administrators, and I hear them complain all the time that it hardly pays to take vacation because they have so much work to do when they get back,” says Elizabeth Woodcock, a practice management consultant with Woodcock & Associates in Atlanta. “They get slammed. But I’m a huge believer in taking time for yourself, and I think it’s important to make vacation a priority.”

Plan ahead

With that sentiment in mind, and as the summer months approach, there are a few ways to ensure you get the break you deserve without juggling a half dozen text messages poolside. Ken Hertz, practice management consultant for MGMA Health Care Consulting Group, says administrators should start by staying current on their work, thus minimizing the amount of catch-up work necessary after your break and relieving your staff from having to juggle incomplete jobs. “Do today’s work today,” he says. “If the administrator is doing a good job, the office ought to be able to function seamlessly and well while the administrator is away.”

Interim leaders should also be identified and trained in advance, says Woodcock. “It’s routine for managers to cross-train their employees, but not routine to think about what jobs can be done by others that they themselves do,” says Woodcock. “The charge entry person can also answer phones, for example, or perhaps your payroll can be done by your bookkeeper.” Just be sure everyone on staff knows who is responsible for what while you’re gone.

Shannon Redmon, office manager for A.M. Faheem, MD, PSC, an internal medicine practice in Elizabethtown, Ky., says she designates a trusted member of her staff to handle payroll when she’s away. “I prep payroll to the point where no salaries are showing so all the person filling in for me has to do is write in the numbers,” says Redmon, noting salaries must be kept confidential. “I already have the spreadsheet ready to go so they just fill it in, add it up, and send it in.”

Before her vacation begins, she also makes sure all her e-mail is answered, checks to be sure the supply cabinets are stocked, and leaves a voicemail and e-mail message about her absence, along with who to contact while she’s gone. “I try to clear off my desk as much as possible,” she says.

Time it right

Timing, of course, is also critical. Be sure your vacation days do not coincide with requested time off for those you’ve entrusted with your job. Also, don’t plan any major events during or immediately after your break, says Hertz, including the start date of a new employee, software upgrades, or the switch to a new Internet service provider. The goal is to minimize the number of potential disruptions during your absence.

Though most of your day-to-day job duties can be delegated temporarily, there are some senior level responsibilities that should be left for you to resolve upon your return, says Hertz. Performance reviews, salary increases, hiring and firing of staff, and patient complaints that are not easily resolved are among them.

To guarantee a peaceful vacation, you might consider leaving your laptop and cell phone at home. Better yet, travel to a remote location where your cell phone doesn’t work. Unfortunately, the latter strategy was only partially successful for Redmon. “I get two weeks vacation a year and I take them both at the same time because if I only take one the other never happens,” she says. “I usually go to the lake for one of those weeks and I don’t get cell phone reception, which is good and bad because I do get text messages, so I end up having to drive to the top of the hill to see what’s going on.”

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

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Physicians Practice.