Article Date: 3/1/2008

Reaping the Benefits of Staff Training

Reaping the Benefits of Staff Training

Successful practitioners discuss the importance of staff training, the challenges they face and how they enlist the help they need.

Harvard Sylvan, O.D.: After patient care, staff training may be the most important aspect of our jobs as optometrists. Knowledgeable employees offer tremendous benefits by contributing to the quality of patient care and the efficiency of our offices.

Yet, as important as staff is to the success of our practices, many practitioners don't include staff training in their business plans. Instead, they concentrate on managing tight schedules and bottom lines. CooperVision recognizes the importance of staff training to the optometric practice and, therefore, has assembled an expert panel to discuss this issue further. First, I'd like to ask an obvious but fundamental question: How important is your staff to the success of your practice?

Larry K. Wan, O.D.: Very important. My staff spends a significant amount of quality time with patients, so training employees is critical to our success.

Sandra J. Bozich, O.D., F.A.A.O.: We wouldn't be in business without our staff.

Steven T. Klein, O.D.: Our employees become more important to us as time goes on because we're delegating more key tasks to them as we concentrate on patient care and other important aspects of the practice. The time we spend training staff now will reap great rewards down the road.

Steven E. Faith, O.D., F.A.A.O.: On the other hand, poorly trained staff can derail office production faster than any other aspect of your practice.

"There are so many different types of vision plans, contact lenses and testing procedures that investing in your staff has become critical to help you deal with all of these issues."

Larry K. Wan, O.D.

Receiving the Dividends

Dr. Sylvan: What are some of the benefits a well-trained staff provides?

Dr. Faith: Training keeps the quality of care high, as well as the quality of the doctor's life. In other words, a well-trained staff helps to improve what we call our RMI — return on our mental investment. Our office runs much more smoothly if our staff is well trained.

Dr. Bozich: Well-trained staff members are more likely to be your advocate and interact with patients. They know what to say to patients and how to deliver your message.

Dr. Sylvan: Do you feel that a well-trained staff helps you retain patients, increase referrals and operate more efficiently?

Dr. Wan: Absolutely. The employees enable doctors to do more of what doctors do best — diagnose and treat patients. There are so many different types of vision plans, contact lenses and testing procedures that investing in your staff has become critical to help you deal with all of these issues.

Pearls of Multitasking

Dr. Sylvan: The makeup of your practices varies widely, from six doctors and 27 staff members in Dr. Faith's group to one doctor and three staff members in Dr. Bozich's solo practice. In the larger practices, do staff members have specific functions or are they cross-trained to perform multiple tasks?

Dr. Faith: We've tried different approaches. Right now, we have three areas — optical, administrative and clinic — with associated tasks. Dividing the office into three areas has worked well for us. It keeps the overlap of responsibilities to a minimum.

Dr. Wan: In our office of five doctors and 25 employees, we strive for cross training — although staff members do have primary responsibilities. If we have a backlog of eyeglasses or contact lenses to be dispensed, the front desk staff or back office technicians can step in and help. Opticians can assist with pretesting and improving patient flow. Cross training improves office efficiency.

Dr. Bozich: At the other side of the spectrum, I have a receptionist whose main duties are to answer the phone, schedule appointments and process third-party claims. Two opticians split their time between optical duties and other tasks for which they're qualified.

"Knowledgeable employees offer tremendous benefits by contributing to the quality of patient care and the efficiency of our offices."

Harvard Sylvan, O.D.

Dr. Klein: We have four doctors and 15 to 20 employees within our two locations. So we've created a career path, providing each employee with a title that has levels of advancement. To move from level 1 to level 5, employees must cross train. Our goal is to keep people moving up while expanding their knowledge into new areas.

Navigating Challenges

Dr. Sylvan: What are the biggest challenges you face?

Dr. Klein: Given our high turnover, our biggest challenge is ensuring every employee is properly trained in a consistent fashion. We also need to systematically track who's been trained to do what. This is very time-consuming.

Dr. Bozich: I face the same challenge. When I lose one employee, I lose 33% of my staff. My training manual is constantly changing as new information becomes available, making it difficult to ensure consistency.

Dr. Faith: Keeping our staff as highly trained as the doctors is an ongoing challenge. However, we overcome this by partnering with contact lens companies and other vendors to use their resources and other educational materials.

Dr. Wan: We consider sales representatives part of our team. The companies that add value are the ones that help train our staff, provide doctors with ideas to improve office efficiency and engage in role-playing with employees to help them handle the various challenges they encounter with patients. Sales reps have the privilege of visiting hundreds of practices, so they have valuable information. This knowledge base of best business practices is incredibly useful when you want to improve your own practice.

Offsite vs. Onsite Training

Dr. Sylvan: Are you personally involved in staff training?

Dr. Bozich: Yes. I review the office manual and practice philosophy with my new employees. I train during my weekly staff meetings when we talk about patient care, telephone triage and other issues. The meetings are an opportunity to discuss problems and solutions and to teach my staff about new products and technologies. New employees benefit from these meetings as they receive on-the-job training.

Dr. Wan: We use a mentoring program, and we use our best trainers in the office. The doctors ask new employees questions to help identify thought patterns and knowledge gaps. Most employees are unaware of what they don't know or don't fully understand. We strive to review each employee on a quarterly to biannual basis to set specific goals and evaluate progress.

Dr. Faith: A team of doctors in our office teaches staff day-to-day tasks. The doctors go out to lunch with the new employee after about 2 weeks to offer support and acknowledge the challenges of learning the new job.

Dr. Klein: I'm involved in the specific training less than 10% of the time. My job is to make sure new staff members understand our mission statement. I also answer questions at the end of our weekly meetings. The rest is left to my general manager.

"…Our biggest challenge is ensuring every employee is properly trained in a consistent fashion."

Steven T. Klein, O.D.

Counting the Cost of Training

Dr. Sylvan: Do you have a budget for training? Can you estimate the annual cost, including loss of productivity and travel expenses?

Dr. Faith: We allocate money for continuing education and travel. We lose $10,000 to $15,000 a month in initial gross revenues to close the office for offsite training. We make that up in future revenue increases that result from a more productive and educated staff.

Dr. Wan: We spend about $500 to $2,000 per year on each employee for offsite education. We also have a 90-minute staff meeting every other week, adding to our costs.

Dr. Klein: We spend about $1,000 to $2,000 per employee on training, for a total of $20,000 to $40,000 per year. That's a conservative estimate, which includes revenue lost while our practice is closed for training.

Dr. Bozich: In addition, you have to account for hourly wages. Factoring in your time could add $500 per hour.

Dr. Klein: We've used outside trainers that cost up to $900 per hour, so it does add up.

Dr. Sylvan: You all agree that training can be expensive. Because a well-trained staff improves the quality of patient care and boosts the success of your practice, it becomes an investment that's worth making. One way to help reduce the amount of time your staff spends away from the office and the associated costs is to use online training, which we'll discuss next. ■

Optometric Management, Issue: March 2008