How to hire and educate the right people for your practice

The right people often make the difference between a successful experience and a terrible one for your patients. In this competitive job market, though, finding qualified staff is a daunting task. This is not to say that there are not enough candidates from which to choose. In this age of cosmetic surgery documentaries, reality series, and dramas, many people are fascinated with the idea of working for a plastic surgeon—but how do you find the right ones?

Look at your existing patients. They often make excellent candidates. If they are interested in working for you, they probably had a positive experience. This is often helpful for creating a great entrée for prospective patients.

Make sure to check references. Often—but not always—people’s work experience will tell you a lot about their loyalty, knowledge, and general work habits. Doing your due diligence may save you from a lot of headaches later.

Do your financial homework. Find out what other medical practices are paying their staff members. Too often, physicians are unaware of the current pay scales in their market. Don’t be surprised if the candidates you are interviewing for a receptionist position are seeking upward of $15 per hour. If you are still paying $8 or $9 per hour, don’t be surprised if appointments are not confirmed, copayments are not collected, and messages are not handled appropriately. The old adage sometimes holds true: “You get what you pay for.”

Conduct all final interviews yourself. Preliminary interviews can and certainly should be conducted by your office manager or your other staff; but when it comes time to select a candidate, you should be involved. Your involvement will send the very positive message that you are interested in who works for you. It will also give you an opportunity to ask some really important questions, such as: “Why do you want to work here?” and “What do you know about me and my practice?” It is also highly advisable that you meet with these candidates because they are going to represent you. It is important that you like them.

People with experience working in medical offices, especially in plastic surgery practices, or in retail sales and customer service roles, are prime candidates for your practice, for obvious reasons. Nothing is more important than customer service. In this highly competitive field, the way your patient is treated by your staff may be the difference between coming in for a consultation and booking surgery with you—and not. Make sure that customer service is something that you constantly discuss with your staff.

Lunch and Learn

Communication within the office is a crucial element in running a successful practice. Fostering an environment in which open communication is encouraged is important in any work­place, especially when the staff deals with peo­­ple—as in every plastic surgery practice.

This starts at the top. You, the physician, must encourage your employees to learn as much as they can about plastic surgery, the media, new procedures and techniques, you and your interests, and your practice’s policies. One of the best ways to do this is to schedule routine “lunch and learn” sessions. Many practices already do this; if you don’t, your staff may not be as knowledgeable as others in the field. The concept is simple. The rewards are great. You simply choose a topic and present it to your staff.

You can review liposuction, for example. Show your staff slides or pictures that you would show a patient. Tell them the risks, the downtime most patients undergo, your experience with such a procedure, and anything else you can think of. Give your staff an opportunity to ask questions. This will send a clear message that you think they are important enough to spend time with and to educate.

The risk of not doing this can be catastrophic. Take this example: There is a practice I know of that a physician joined about 2 years ago. This physician had attended top schools and had done a fellowship in breast surgery. When asked, the receptionist in his practice—who had been working with him for 2 years already—did not know that he even performed breast surgery. Think about how many patients he may have lost during those years!

Another way to educate your staff is to encourage them to visit your Web site and other plastic surgery Web sites. They can learn a lot about you and a lot about trends in the business. Most patients who are not referred by friends or family members actually find their plastic surgeon by conducting a Web search. Don’t you think your own staff should know what these people are reading? 

Job Descriptions

When it comes to staff duties, there are several areas that first require clarification before you assign responsibilities to individuals. Is your practice 100% aesthetic? How many staff members are there? How many physicians are there? Do you have your own surgical center?

There are several key staff members in every plastic surgery practice. There is usually a receptionist, a nurse, a patient coordinator, and an office manager. Each of these people plays a vital role in the efficient functioning of the practice. To ensure that they clearly understand their respective roles, you should develop detailed job descriptions. They should be in writing, and they should be given to everyone in the practice, so that they all know one another’s responsibilities. They should also be updated regularly.

In general, the receptionist is responsible for answering the telephone. She also schedules and confirms appointments, handles cancellations, and interacts with every current and prospective patient. The receptionist is vital to your success. If she is abrupt and non-accommodating, a prospective patient will not even get to see you. The patient will go elsewhere, where perhaps the physician is not as good, but where the staff is more accommodating to his or her needs. Make sure you find a real “people person” for this vital role.

The nurse in most practices assists with minor procedures in the examining room and with major surgeries in the operating room. He or she is also usually responsible for ordering all medical supplies, calling all patients before and after surgery, and handling various clinical functions. For example, in some states, registered nurses are allowed to perform certain procedures, including skin care and other nonsurgical treatments. In some practices, nurses are used as the skin care specialists. And in other practices, the nurses perform injections and laser procedures, such as laser hair removal and vein treatments.

The patient coordinator handles surgery scheduling, patient financing, and insurance authorization. Generally, the patient coordinator should be in frequent communication with patients from the time they leave your office after their initial consultation until well after the surgery has been performed. The patient coordinator should send letters thanking patients for coming in for their initial appointment, then follow up to see if they have any other questions about the procedure and if they are ready to schedule a preoperative appointment. A good patient coordinator will also maintain an accurate database of patients so you can identify people for your practice newsletter, monthly seminars, and direct-mail pieces.

Personnel Issues

The office manager usually handles all personnel issues, from interviewing to hiring, training, and, if necessary, discipline. The office manager should also handle the practice bookkeeping. In some practices, the office manager may interact with a publicist, the media, or others in the community who are promoting events that the practice may be interested in sponsoring. Many office managers also do all of the billing for the practice and serve as the information technology expert.

As you can see, several key people functioning at a high level are required to run a successful plastic surgery practice. There is a lot of room for error. A bad experience anywhere in the process will likely result in a patient rescheduling with another plastic surgeon in town—or even worse, bad-mouthing you to friends. All of this can happen even if this person never even got to see you.

For these reasons and many more like them, it is crucial that you establish clear guidelines for your personnel. Encourage them to go out of their way to help your patients, and set the tone for customer service yourself. Have frequent staff meetings to talk about the administrative procedures in the office. Make attendance mandatory. Hold the meetings before work, and bring in breakfast. By scheduling these meetings yourself, you will once again reinforce the message that the communication flow in your practice is very important to you. Your staff will notice and appreciate this.

If you create an environment in which people want to work, you will get a lot more from them. Hiring the right people from the start will save you a lot of time and aggravation, and it will likely result in a much more successful and rewarding work environment for you and your staff.

Richard J. Crici, EdD, is the CEO of Aesthetic Centers of Excellence, which provides consulting services to plastic surgery practices throughout the country. He is currently the president of the Plastic Surgery Administrative Association. He can be reached at (866) 633-1772 or [email protected].