I think eye care professionals (ECPs) who don't often make an effort to send staff members to educational meetings are missing a big opportunity to make their practices stronger and larger. Let's explore the issues involved in developing a program for staff training at eye care conferences.
Why send staff?
There are some big benefits for your practice if your staff attends meetings and obtains specialized training courses:
An educated staff is a better staff. You know that your staff is the face of your practice. They speak to patients every day, probably more than the doctor. When patients speak with well-informed, up-to-date staff members, the experience is enhanced. Your practice image is elevated.
Staff attitudes improve. Attending a live meeting away from the office is a perk for employees. They view it as something new and exciting... and it is. They come back to the office energized about the practice they work for and about their career in eye care. This converts to a better attitude and better morale. Job satisfaction improves along with your organizational culture.
Revenue increases. Most ECPs only focus on the cost of sending staff to meetings, but what they don't often see is that gross and net income often improves even more. This is very obvious if the course topics include sales training or education about optical products. But even if the courses are more technical in nature, the two points above are still practice builders. And if the employee can visit an exhibit hall or have some interaction with vendors, there is a huge opportunity to increase sales of products and services.
What are the costs?
Sending staff members to conferences can seem expensive, but it is really not that bad when you consider the benefits to the practice.
Registration and course fees. This varies highly with the nature of the program, the host organization and the industry sponsorship. It can go from free to a few hundred dollars, but it is not that much if you consider it as a cost of doing business.
Travel. This also varies, of course (see the meeting venues below), but even if there are airfare and hotel stays, this expense should run less than $1,000 per person. Is that too much? How many additional exams or additional premium products would you have to sell to recover this cost? Two staff members may be able to share a hotel room in some cases.
Lost office production. This could be one of the biggest reasons why many optometrists don't send staff members to meetings, but if the doctor is also attending the same meeting, the office does not need as many staff anyway. In that case, an employee who attends the meeting is probably more productive than if he or she stayed at the office! And you need not close the office in most cases for one employee to go. You can rotate your staff attendance over several meetings throughout the year.
It is best to develop a written office policy for staff continuing education and travel to avoid some staff members feeling like the arrangements are not fair. Like any office policy you can and should put your own spin on what you want to offer, but here is my office policy to get your started thinking. You may need a different policy for salaried employees compared to hourly.
Education is not mandatory; employees do not have to attend.
Educational programs and specific courses must be approved by the doctor in advance. Several factors will be evaluated and not all requests can be honored.
The practice pays the employee's usual wage for full days or half days spent at educational programs and in travel. It makes no difference if the days are usually scheduled for work or not, you receive pay for the days you travel or attend a meeting.
The doctor will determine how many full or half days are spent in education and travel.
The practice pays for the registration and educational course expense.
The practice pays for travel expense but hotel and air fare arrangements must be approved by the doctor or manager in advance of booking. Driving is reimbursed at the current IRS mileage rate.
The practice will reimburse the employee for reasonable meal expense, taxi, parking, etc. upon submission of receipts. (You may want the policy to include a per diem amount for meals, such as $50 or $75 per day.)
Employees who register for courses but cancel or do not show will be charged for any fees or travel expense that is not refundable.
You may not leave a meeting early without approval by the doctor or manager.
If the practice is closed for education courses, no hourly wages are paid to employees who choose to not attend the education.
All the various conferences have some merit and advantages. Be open to trying different types of meetings.
National conferences. The large size and diverse course offerings of these meetings make them an excellent meeting for staff. They offer special courses designed for opticians, clinical technicians, managers, and front desk personnel. All of these meetings have a large exhibit hall, which can be a very valuable part of the total educational experience for a staff member. The conferences that come to mind for optometry include AOA, Vision Expo East and West, SECO and AAO.
Regional meetings. These programs can also be quite large and have an excellent exhibit hall but they may involve less travel, which can be a plus for sending staff.
Special group meetings. There are many excellent meetings hosted by specialty societies, eye care publications, consulting firms, labs, vendors, buying groups and doctor alliances. Some of these have more personal interactions with sponsoring vendors.
State associations. These meetings have a long record of excellent education and exhibitors and they are usually within driving distance because they are in your state. Some of the events may not even require an overnight stay.
Evaluate your philosophy for staff education and consider how your practice can benefit from encouraging staff to go to meetings outside of the office.