Getting your office staff proficient in multiple tasks can make for an even smoother-running practice -- if you take the time to do the training right.
By LARRY STEVENS, amednews correspondent. Sept. 4, 2006. PRINT| E-MAIL| RESPOND| REPRINTS| SHARE There are no office positions called "receptionist," "billing clerk" or "scheduler" in medical practice heaven. Instead there is only one nonclinical job: "office worker," the perfect interchangeable staffer.
Busy day today? No problem: Move a generic worker to reception.
Falling behind in billings? Move a few workers into that department.
Sound impossible? Not if you do a little cross-training.
In athletics, cross-training is designed to develop different parts of the body, rather than work exclusively on one group of muscles. The same principle applies with cross-training in your practice. Instead of having just one person do one thing, you train your staff to handle multiple tasks.
Cross-training in your practice does not guarantee all workers can be brought to equal competency in all jobs, just as a cross-training athlete might never develop an elite skill. However, a cross-training athlete can shift workouts when, say, a part of the body is sore or injured. A cross-training practice can shift workers among various nonclinical work when, say, one is sick or otherwise out of the office. Cross-train or not See related content
Practices have to carefully consider the pros and cons of cross-training. They must be able to determine when and where it can be used to advantage and when and where it may result in unacceptably reduced productivity, unhappy patients, or even serious mistakes.
"I'm a strong believer in cross-training. But it has to be part of an overall, well-planned strategy," says David Zahaluk, MD, a family physician with two-doctor Trinity West Urgent Care in Lewisville, Texas. Dr. Zahaluk, also a practice management consultant, says among the factors that will affect the success or failure of cross-training are the size of the practice, the level of technology, the office's culture, the nature of the training, and the specificity and complexity of the jobs for which workers may be cross-trained.
While there are pitfalls to avoid, many doctors said cross-training is worthwhile.
The first advantage is staff flexibility. If multiple office workers can handle multiple tasks, then you can shift people in and out of jobs as needed. And, you might not have to hire temporary workers to fill in.
"The more we can train our staff to handle different jobs, the more flexibility we have," says solo gastroenterologist Patricia L. Raymond, MD, in Chesapeake, Va. Dr. Raymond attributes cross-training and an electronic medical records system to keeping the number of her office staff to an efficient four, thus keeping a lid on costs.
Dr. Raymond admits that when some people, including her, take on jobs for which they are not primarily trained, the task might take a little longer. And because a nurse's salary is higher than a clerk's, that job-shifting means overpaying. However, by reducing reliance on temporary staff during vacations, and eliminating outsourcing of jobs like coding, she said the practice is enjoying an overall cost benefit.
Doctors note that cross-training: Breaks up the monotony of the week, giving workers more challenges and variety. Gives workers a sense of how the practice works together as a team. Helps the doctor or administrator discover that certain workers are well-suited for a different position. Helps patients get answers to billing or insurance questions on the first call, because more people will know how to find the answers.
And, it can be easier to discover problems when a position is not solely handled by a single person. For example, an attempt at embezzlement might be averted if more than one employee is handling the