Article Date: 10/1/2005

No Staff Member Left Behind
Sure, it costs to bring your staff to optometric conferences — but the benefits far outweigh the price tag.
Ren´┐Ż Luthe,
Senior Associate Editor

Once upon a time, in the not-too-distant past, the idea of bringing one's staff to optometric meetings seemed totally impractical to many O.D.s. The main obstacle, of course, was expense — registration fees, travel expenses, food and lodging, not to mention the revenues lost if the office is closed. It was thought more sensible for the doctor to go; any information he thought the staff needed to know, he could pass on when he returned.

However, as the modern optometric practice has evolved, so have ideas regarding staff education. The contemporary eyecare practice is no longer seen as helmed by the all-important doctor(s) with interchangeable staff playing minor roles. The concept of "teamwork" has infiltrated optometric practice just as it has so many other models of American business. And a sense of being part of a team, proponents claim, is something that attending meetings together can give your staff.

We're all in this together

Doctors who believe in bringing staff to association meetings all gave morale building as their primary reason for doing so. As Dr. Neil Gailmard, of Munster, Ind., put it, "I realized whenever I attended major conventions, I enjoyed a major boost in enthusiasm for optometric practice. It seemed basic to me that if I felt that way, my staff would too."

Rather than staff viewing attendance as an onerous obligation, these O.D.s say, they generally perceive it as the boss affirming their value and potential. "They feel that being asked to these meetings recognizes them as an important part of the team," explains Paul Ajamian, O.D., Center Director for Omni Eye Service in Atlanta, who began bringing his staff along 10 years ago. The glamorous big cities the meetings are frequently held in also contribute to the perception of the meeting as a positive experience. "It makes a cohesive work environment and is an excellent perk for motivated staff," says Don Robinson, O.D., of San Francisco, who often takes his staff to meetings in Las Vegas.

Never stop learning

Additionally, doctors feel that it is in the best interests of their practice to help educate their staffs. "The staff needs to hear about new advances and new ideas just as the doctor does," Kenneth A. Young, O.D., of Brentwood, Tenn., points out. And education, of course, translates to commercial value. "A more educated team offers a better choice for patients," Young says. Still other doctors feel that nurturing their staff's educational level is a matter of fairplay. "I want to be as invested in their growth as they are in mine," says Dr. Robinson.

They're not the only ones

Yet another benefit of taking staff to association conferences is the perspective it gives them. Mingling with colleagues from other practices, they learn that they are not alone in dealing with particular problems. They can gain insights that a second-hand account of the meeting from their boss would most likely not include. Wandering through the exhibit halls, they may see products that they know would fill a need in your office — a need that the more clinically-minded O.D. may have overlooked.

What staff learn at meetings can improve their boss's credibility as well. "There's an interesting side effect," says Dr. Rob- inson. "The staff begins to see that I am not making all this up — the business techniques, phone recalls, patient psychology, target setting. That there really are things they can affect in the office and create great bonuses for themselves."

What's not to like?

Despite all these benefits, many O.D.s remain reluctant to bring staff to professional meetings. Expense, it turns out, is not the only factor. This is also an area in which ego rears its ugly head, according to some. "The doctor often thinks he knows what is best for his office and he doesn't need help in making those decisions," says Dr. Young. Yet even the best-intentioned O.D. can't keep everything his office needs to improve in the forefront of his mind during a busy conference.

Others say that keeping staff in the dark about new products and techniques is an ill-fated form of control. Such doctors "are afraid staff may learn concepts or procedures that are contrary to the way they want to do things," says Dr. Gailmard. He warns, however, that withholding knowledge is never a good strategy. "Doctors who are open to new ideas and who allow staff to feel empowered have less employee turnover and better staff morale," he says.

Getting it right

Another obstacle that may discourage O.D.s from sending staff to conferences is deciding who should go. It may be impossible to send the whole staff, and when the conference is in a desirable location, such as Disneyland, those not chosen to go may feel resentful. Proponents offer criterion for avoiding such sticky situations.

Dr. Gailmard encourages his entire staff to attend meetings, though he doesn't require they go. His practice's proximity to Chicago means that many professional education opportunities are available within driving distance. "As an employer, when it comes time to review staff performance, I view attendance at meetings as a positive trait."

He requires that staff get doctor approval for all requested lecture courses in advance, and that office staffing be considered before time off is approved. Dr. Gailmard recommends you develop rules for staff attendance at meetings in the interest of fairness. Be sure to record the policy in the employee manual.

Dr. Robinson always brings his practice's two office managers to conferences, as well as the opticians. However, he allows other staff to come as well, provided they meet his education requirements: at least six hours of continuing education courses, plus assignments for the exhibit floor.

Benefits for all

Personnel such as office managers and opticians are obvious choices to attend conferences, but many doctors agree that providing educational opportunities for the entire staff is worthwhile. "Your receptionist is just as important as your contact lens tech," says Dr. Young. "All members of the team will interact with the patients, so it's just as important for your receptionist to know about that new contact lens as it is for your tech. After all, your receptionist is likely the first person to field a question from a patient at the front desk or on the phone."

Optometric Management, Issue: October 2005