Office Set-up On a Dime

Use these tips to organize your office environment. They're small changes but you'll reap big rewards.

Office Set-up On a Dime

Use these tips to organize your office environment. They're small changes but you'll reap big rewards.

By Donna A. Suter, Apison, Tenn.

AS AN optometrist in a new practice, you could perform five or more comprehensive exams on any busy clinic day. Office staff might handle 50 telephone calls on average and process claims for 20 to 30 patients. Foot traffic could range anywhere between 10 and 20 people at a time.

Busy days such as these can get chaotic. But your office environment doesn't have to be. The key to keeping your practice running smoothly is to organize the front desk area and train your staff for greater efficiency. Patients will receive the eye care and personal attention they need without feeling rushed. Plus, you'll boost productivity, improve work performance and bring in higher revenues for the practice.

In this article, I'll discuss how to create an organized office environment, from buying the right equipment and arranging it for workflow efficiency to managing patients' records for a smoother running practice.

Buyer Savvy

All of us have experienced the invigoration of rearranging our home or moving to a new one. You can get that same feeling by redoing your office. So let's begin with a shopping list for the basics. 

Every office needs a phone, a computer, a fax machine, a printer and at least one drawer employees can access without leaving their desks.

Rest assured you don't need high-end office equipment and technology to run an efficient practice, but you will have to purchase the following essentials:

• Desk. As in any office setting, the ideal desk is L-shaped or U-shaped. Organize the desktop for maximum efficiency, grouping items that are used together. If desk space is limited, move the phone to one side and have the employee use a headset. Put the day's charts and blank forms that go inside patients' charts to the side or on a rear credenza within swiveling range. By the way, a good swivel chair is a must.

• Phone system. When purchasing a phone system, focus on quality not just price. Poor sound quality won't impress prospective patients, vendors or anyone else who calls your office.

Even a small practice can benefit from a voicemail system that allows callers to press 1 for your address and hours of operation; 2 for optical; 3 to make an appointment; or 4 to order contact lenses. To avoid frustrating callers, limit the number of options to five, and inform callers up front that pressing zero will connect them to an operator.

• Call waiting/caller ID. Some people don't like call waiting, but it's the next best thing to having another employee on staff. And caller ID enables you to see who's calling.

Without these features, you won't know about an important call until you check voicemail. By then, it may be too late. You'll race to return the call, only to find out the person has left the office, and you've begun the game of telephone tag. So it goes without saying that being available to callers far outweighs the brief interruption of a second call coming in.

Introducing the TARF System

If you're anything like the people I've helped, about 75% of the papers on your desk are of no value. You'll never look at them, except in the course of searching for something else. Don't believe me? Then walk yourself through a process I call the "Frog Hop" to determine which papers you need to keep and which ones you should throw out.

As you look through your papers for something you need, take a pen or marker and put a light dot in the corner of every document you touch. Put another dot in the same place the next time you touch that same document as you sort through the piles looking for something else.

Soon, the less important papers will break out into "frog tracks." Once you're convinced the piles have lost their value, you'll be willing to use the TARF method (toss, action, refer and file) to eliminate the clutter.

Toss pieces of paper that have at least five dots in the corner. Take action on items you need to deal with immediately. Refer or delegate tasks to your staff. And file the paperwork you need to keep for future reference.

• Fax machine. In this world of high-speed e-mail, you'll still need a fax machine. Consider getting a dedicated telephone line for the fax machine.

In lieu of a separate fax machine, you can add a fax modem to your PC. This set-up, along with a scanner, will allow your staff to scan and fax almost any document directly from the computer. Plus, the combination reduces the amount of paper that can pile up on desks because it allows employees to see messages without printing them. Not feeding the paper monster with more paper kills it.

• Multiple phone lines. You may think you can't afford a second line, but the truth is you can't afford not to have one. Forcing callers to listen to a busy signal while you're checking on insurance coverage wastes their time and makes you appear

Designer's Challenge

Once you have all the necessary office equipment, you want to arrange the check-in area and business office so staff members can work efficiently. Checking in patients effectively largely depends on how the physical work environment is set up and whether or not employees have easy access to forms and

Tip: Observe how employees reach for phones, use their computers, assemble charts and register patients to determine where to place equipment and forms.

For instance, if an employee is right-handed, put the phone to his or her left, leaving the right hand free for taking notes and processing credit card payments. Position a small message box next to the phone and a small desktop file rack for paperwork being processed.

Taming the Paper Monster

Creative Approach to Filing Insurance Info

The benchmark in an ophthalmologist's office is that each insurance clerk handles approximately $1.25 million in claims. If they can do it, so can you.

Here's a seven-step strategy to keep patients' insurance information in order and at your fingertips:

1. Color-code insurance information to distinguish work categories. For instance, use orange tabs for forms; red for denials; yellow for claims; and green for EOBs. Manuals and correspondence from the carrier can be blue and organized by date.

2. Use a calendar/tickler system to avoid missing a deadline or forgetting to follow up on claims. I prefer hanging files labeled January through December and manila folders labeled 1 through 31 for days of the month.

3. Keep relevant correspondence together, in chronological order, with the most recent on top.

4. Substitute staples for paper clips to prevent papers from sticking together.

5. Toss duplicates and unnecessary materials, notes, and the like, once a month.

6. Store forms and other useful documents either in a desktop file or file drawer next to the billing clerk.

7. Arrange phone coverage for an hour a day to give the billing clerk time to tackle priority work. When routine tasks pile up, ask everyone to pitch in so your cash flow won't suffer.

Of course, one desktop file rack won't organize the myriad of forms, explanations of benefits (EOBs), patient charts and lab orders that flood your practice. A good storage and filing system will.

To get organized, you'll need to equip every workstation with six receptacles, labeled as follows:

1) Sort — incoming paperwork and projects related to a particular workstation's function

2) Action Items — incoming and outgoing lab orders, callback messages, recall cards and referral letters that need typing

3) Read — trade journals and magazines

4) File — reference material, patient charts and vendor invoices with statements

5) Refer — tasks that can be handled by someone else in the office

6) Wastebasket — flyers, obsolete information, advertisements and 3-month-old magazines.

Consider installing shelves, storage slots, and racks for charts, incoming and outgoing mail and other documents.

You can visit home improvement and discount department stores, or office supply outlets for storage ideas and supplies.

Other suggestions: Ask your employees to file documents and straighten up work areas daily. Have them set aside 10 minutes after lunch to put away charts, forms or supplies they took out that morning or the previous afternoon. And ensure everyone puts things back where they belong.

A Priceless Commodity

Taking these steps to organize your employees and office environment will enable you to run a more efficient practice. You'll know you've achieved efficiency when workspaces are arranged to follow logical workflow patterns, clutter is kept to a minimum and employees are signing in patients and completing daily tasks effortlessly and effectively. What's more, you'll see an increase in revenues that will enable you to grow your practice.

Let's face it, how do you assign a dollar value to assignments undone or half-finished? A rushed patient? Or insurance denials not refiled? The answer is you can't. But when your practice is well organized and efficient, the dollar value is considered priceless!

Donna Suter, president of Suter Consulting Group, is a frequent writer and speaker on personnel development, sales and efficiency. She offers onsite practice management consulting to doctors in the U.S. and Canada. Contact her at or (800) 249-5201.