Back to school

October 15, 2010

Remembering the rules of the road can help clinic managers and administrators who want to keep their practice on the road with minimal breakdowns.

As I was watching a group of teenagers exit the driver's education office next to my local lunch shop, I thought of the lessons I hoped they were learning about navigating the traffic system. The teacher in me began going through the principles of safe navigation and it occurred to me that these same rules of the road could be used by clinic managers/administrators that want to keep their car (practice) on the road with minimal breakdowns.

Perhaps your clinic needs a driver's education refresher as well? Let's go over a few rules of the road and see if they pertain to your practice.

In any practice, you need to have a goal in mind as to where you want your practice to go. It's the plan we all work so hard to cultivate. Keeping your eyes 50 feet down the road, looking to the horizon, allows you to look to the future-to make plans for growth, development, and new concepts, and to jettison old plans that did not work.

But beware the habit of veering into other drivers' lanes. While it is often wise to be aware of another practice's growth and development, steering your vehicle into their lanes will surely cause an accident. What other practices find success with may do the direct opposite for your group.

Example: During the economic crisis we have all endured, a number of practices cut employee positions, or drastically cut hours of employees, to deal with their financial downfall. It was a quick fix. When the time came to rehire those people, it cost them more to bring them back onboard-if they were still available.

Instead of following other practices, keep an eye on the future and remember-there is going to be a time when you need staff as the volume increases. We initiated low census times, asking the staff to give back time voluntarily. It was a win-win for both management and the employees. Now as we are beginning to see an increase in patient numbers, and the busy season has arrived, we still have dedicated and eager staff, ready and willing to see those patients.

• Anticipate problems. Whether you are on a short or long trip, you always need to be prepared for the unexpected. A stone flying up and cracking your windshield is something you cannot prevent, so you need to be ready if it happens. Have replacement insurance to repair the windshield to keep you on the road. Perform periodic maintenance on the vehicle's equipment to keep it running smoothly.

Same tenets with your clinic. Watch the performances of your technicians and office staff. Are they performing efficiently and smartly, or do they need tuning up? Continual education, individual and group discussions, and encouraging staff to share their ideas will keep your clinic running strong for a long time.

• Don't pick up hitchhikers! Inevitably, staff turnover is a challenge that all practices have to face from time to time. Replacing that staff member can be fraught with hazards. You need to resist a quick fix to your staffing shortage. Making sure that you understand how your staff flows together and then hiring the person that fits that flow can take time. Hiring a quick fix is a road hazard you can avoid. Take the time to ensure that any staff replacement is the right match for your organization.

• Be aware of your blind spots. Every vehicle has blind spots that need to be checked continually to ensure that you do not cause an accident. Even the best drivers will veer into a lane because they didn't see another vehicle there.

It's no different in your clinic. Staff will leave, expensive equipment will break, and patient volumes will rise and decline, usually at all the wrong times. Make sure you have contingency plans for the times when you are in a blind spot. Staffing numbers should be adequate for the volume of patients you have. Running too lean with staff can cause staff to become disgruntled, stressed, and feeling that you are out of touch with their needs. Too much staff during low-volume times will cause physicians to worry about dollars in and expenses out being at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Maintain your equipment routinely to ensure that it is running at a high capability-and if it is wearing down, replace it. Don't wait for the visual field machine to give up the ghost all of a sudden when, in actuality, it has been dying slowly for the past 4 months.

When you come to think of it, your practice really is like a driver's education class with the goal for each being to "keep the vehicle between the lines."

Happy travels!

Dianna E. Graves, COMT, BSEd, is clinical services manager at St. Paul Eye Clinic PA, in Woodbury, MN. Graves is a graduate of the School of Ophthalmic Medical Technology, St. Paul, MN, and has been a member of its teaching faculty since 1983. She can be reached at dgraves@stpauleye.com