5 steps clinicians can take to get back to their patients

This article is sponsored by Careers by KevinMD.com.

According to the 2018 Medscape National Physician Burnout Report, 42 percent of physicians are burned out. Of the doctors in that group, 56 percent place the blame squarely on the plethora of tasks they find themselves performing instead of being involved in actual patient care. Practicing medicine isn’t cutting short the careers of medical professionals. It’s all the other duties they find themselves assuming.

That’s unfortunate since there are solutions that can help fix this problem. Dawn Park, an efficiency expert who works with medical and other professionals to reset their businesses, says there are plenty of steps medical providers can take to create more effective, streamlined business operations that let physicians and others focus on their life’s work.

Park provides a description of what lies at the base of this problem and follows with a prescription to get any medical office back on track.

The heart of the matter of patient care

Why are medical providers feeling they struggle more than ever with administrative duties? Park points to two main issues. “The first is mandates set by the Affordable Care Act to move to electronic health records,” she says. “In itself, this was always going to be a challenge. But many offices continue to struggle because they never had the proper contractor support getting these systems in place.”

Park says the second issue has to do with the fact that many offices are reluctant to upgrade or simply don’t know how. “Too often you see office or business managers more interested in cutting costs than providing a better service. Or they leave decisions up to doctors whose focus is elsewhere or who simply lack the expertise to make smart business choices.”

Regardless of office, department or hospital size, Park says there are five steps medical providers can take to get doctors back to their patients and staff performing their work far more efficiently.

1. Come together. When was the last time doctors and administrative staff sat down together and discussed ways to do better work? Rarely? Almost never? That’s the problem.

You can’t address an organizational problem if the whole organization isn’t involved, says Park. If administrative duties are cutting into a doctor’s time with patients, the solution isn’t simply tossing the issue back to the administrative staff. “Physicians and staff need to sit down together to turn up why the problem exists and then find a solution that actually solves the problem,” she says.

Some offices will complain that there simply is no time or opportunity to pull everyone together for a meeting. Park says that’s just not true. She notes, “You have to make the time. If you aren’t making time to solve a problem, you’re admitting you can live with it.”

Park adds, “Communication, most of the time, is the source of many of these issues. A physician might feel she’s stuck with doing a task and simply not say anything. If no one is communicating these issues in the proper way, nothing is going to get better.”

2. Hire better. Park notes that one area where medical administrative support continues to struggle is finding staff with the right set of skills. (Note: This doesn’t mean staff are necessarily at fault for all administrative problems.) She says modern practices need to have employees who are both technologically and personally fluent. “They need to both be able to handle patients and other staff professionally and be up-to-date and able to understand software programs and any other technology that comes into the office,” Park explains. “Usually you find staff that is particularly strong in one area and weak in the other.”

As your organization expands or replaces staff, Park suggests looking beyond education and experience and instead focusing on how well job candidate communicates and addresses potential issues: “Look for someone who can see the ‘big picture’ and is interested in making everyone’s job easier.”

3. Train. If you can’t bring in new staff, train your existing team members. In particular, cross-train them to cover each other’s duties. Park says better-educated staff will be quicker to offer solutions.

Also, with training comes raised expectations, she says. “When you’re training people, you’re providing a new perspective on their work. You’re letting them know you’re investing in their future and they need to truly invest themselves in yours,” says Park. She suggests medical offices insist their vendors provider training on-site to ensure employees understand fully how any new systems or products work.

4. Innovate. For the last two decades, the prevailing philosophy in manufacturing and other service industries has been lean processing. Lean processing, as its name suggests, means creating efficiencies in a process that cuts time and waste. While this notion may seem to better fit manufacturing and similar operations, it also can be applied quite effectively to administrative and medical work.

“The whole idea is to work smarter, to realize savings in time and materials by locating areas where they are wasted and finding a way to eliminate that waste,” explains Park. “In an office or medical practice that can mean finding ways to cut out redundant paperwork or other work, or by making sure all the implements and tools of the practice are readily available. You’d be amazed just how much time is wasted because a physician can’t find something as simple as a pen or a working tablet or laptop computer because no one bothered to charge one.”

5. Embrace continuous improvement. Building on Step 4, Park says medical offices need to head off potential issues once they solve the existing ones. She explains that in many cases, once a workgroup resolves some issues, they fall into a false sense of security that they’ve handled all their problems even though each day brings new challenges and new tasks and technologies are always on the horizon. If a team isn’t addressing the next set of challenges, they can become complacent and even fall back into the habits that created the issues they believed were resolved.

“You have to continually work on your business or it ends up working on you,” says Park. “There are always better ways to do things. If continuous improvement is recognized and rewarded in an office, interest in it becomes infectious. People stop living with problems and instead fix them.”

That means more focus on care, which is beneficial — and certainly healthier — for everyone.

Tim Sramcik is a writer, Careers by KevinMD.com.

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