There’s been plenty of attention paid to the growing physician shortage, but many practices are also struggling to find and keep non-clinical staff.
In fact, more than 60% of medical practice leaders said their organizations have experienced a shortage of qualified applicants for nonclinical positions in the past year, according to a recent poll by the Medical Group Management Association.
Some of the reasons for the problem included the supply versus demand for talent, a growing lack of technical education in the field, challenges hiring in rural areas and difficulty recruiting millennials. Respondents also said cited the fact that larger organizations can offer better pay and that low unemployment rates have cut the pool of candidates.
At the same time, front-office staff, including receptionists, medical records staff and billing staff, can be critical to a medical practice. That front office and how staff interact with patients can make a big difference when it comes to patient satisfaction. An analysis of almost 7 million patient reviews and comments found the topic cited most frequently in both positive and negative reviews.
In an interview with FierceHealthcare, Ken Hertz, of the MGMA’s consulting branch, mentioned several ways practice leaders can help solve the problem. Here are a few of his suggestions:
- Work hard to retain the staff you already have: One-third of respondents in the poll said they had not experienced a shortage of nonclinical staff, attributing that in part to low turnover. Focus first on keeping the good people you have, Hertz said. That starts with providing adequate training, giving staff clear expectations and then providing support.
Staff that work on a practice’s front desk often find themselves in a pressure cooker, he said, answering phones, signing in patients, fielding questions.
“I often tell physicians if they want to know what is really going on in their practice, go sit at the front desk,” Hertz says. Recognize that the job isn’t easy and be sure managers provide support to staff who work for them.
- Acknowledge generational differences: In a typical practice, you have five or six different age cohorts. “Everyone needs to be managed a little differently,” he said. “But I think millennials get a bad rap. I’m not really so sure they are that different than anyone else.”
You may want to meet with your employees regularly to hear their concerns. Provide them feedback on how they are doing. “People want to come into the practice and know they make a difference,” he said.
- Don’t neglect your best people: Sometimes, practices spend too much time focusing on "problem" people and can neglect those who are working the hardest.
“Take people who are stars and doing a good job and continue to encourage and support them,” he said. You don’t want those people to decide to go elsewhere because you don’t pay them attention.
- Use current employees to help recruit new staff: For instance, offer a recruiting bonus to current staff for bringing in a new employee. Even just having staff say your practice is a great place to work can help recruit new people via word of mouth, he said.
- Create a good work environment: Small practices, in particular, may not be able to provide the highest salaries and best benefits. Offer the most competitive salary and benefits you can. But beyond that, make your practice a good place for people to work.
You may want to plan some social events, such as taking staff to a baseball game or planning a cookout. You can give staff a half-day off to acknowledge their birthday. Celebrate people and their achievements in ways that larger practices may not. You may be able to offer better hours to staff. By being flexible and creative, you can keep people on board.
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- Remember your staff are people and treat them right: Physicians can play a big role in staff retention, he said. They should learn staff members’ names and say hello. Praise from a physician at the practice can carry a lot of weight.
“Understand that Mary is a person, not a biller,” he said. On the other hand, if a doctor or manager needs to correct or coach a staff member, do it in private. You never want to embarrass someone in front of colleagues or patients.
- If you have a bad manager in the office, address the situation: It is the practice manager’s job to hold mid-level staff responsible. And it is up to practice owners to hold a practice manager accountable. Coach them and set goals. Evaluate a person’s job performance but if a problem situation doesn’t get better, you need to replace them.
“That’s the hardest part for physician owners,” Hertz said, but it could be right decision if a poor manager is having an impact on patients.
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- While practices may commonly do exit interviews with staff who decide to leave, do "stay" interviews with employees: For a staff member who has stayed a few years, ask them what it is they like about the practice. What’s good? What makes it an attractive place to work? What would you change?
The bottom line is that practice leaders need to keep in touch with their organization and know what is going well and what is not, Hertz said.