We Need More Help at the Front Desk!
Why is it that team members in the non-clinical roles, often referred to as the “front desk staff”, complain about the amount of work they have to do and always seem to be stressed out? Here are a few of the comments we hear all the time:
“The people in the back don’t understand all the stuff we have to do”.
“How can I do the insurance when I keep having to answer the phone?”
“We never get caught up.”
“I’m constantly having to stop what I’m doing to take care of a patient. Then when I come back to it, I forget where I am.”
We have a couple of theories about the traditional front desk configuration and why it sets most teams up for failure.
THEORY 1: The front desk isn’t the area in which the dentist works. He or she doesn’t fully understand the challenges the staff is faced with and is less likely to know how the systems work against them, not to mention the outdated equipment and software challenges. For instance, many practices have only made a partial transition to paperless charts, making the practice dependent on two systems (paper and computer), which makes locating information more difficult, causing duplication and increasing the chance of error. The dentist rarely understands the challenges this poses for the team. (This is a subject in itself!)
THEORY 2: People who work in this arena often develop tunnel vision and have difficulty
seeing new ways to structure their work. The result is that the front desk staff keeps doing the same old things in the same old ways, and not doing any of them at optimal level.
THEORY 3: When the non-clinical staff complains long enough, the dentist usually breaks down and adds another person to the team to do the same things the other team members are doing, creating more confusion, more errors and even less efficiency and effectiveness – not to mention more overhead!
So, what’s the answer? Consider separating the tasks into two areas of specialty and assign the responsibilities to the individual who has the right skill sets. Let’s look at the responsibilities of the non-clinical staff and how those duties break down.
There are three distinct areas of focus in every practice – what we call the A-B-Cs :
A – Administrative:
Responsibilities that support the business of the business. They are related to paper and tasks – not patients. They can occur “behind the scenes” and in most cases, are not ones that must be addressed in the moment.
The key in this role: to be EFFICIENT with THINGS.
Just some of the responsibilities that might fall under this heading are:
– review chart entries at dayʼs end to balance against deposits
-insurance pre-authorization, submissions, review and followup
-opening and sorting mail with distribution to appropriate person
-entering payments from mail and over the counter
-printing receipts for patients
-monthly and annual closing and archiving
-organizing invoices and packing slips before matching to statements for payment
-payables entry in accounting system
-preparation of a/p report for dentist review and approval
-preparation of checks for dentistʼs signature
-mailing signed checks
-inventory of office supplies
-purchase of ofﬁce supplies and patient amenities
-errands as assigned
-maintenance of ofﬁce equipment and machinery
-computer system oversight and IT
-maintaining patient amenities (ie: coffee station, water, etc)
-hourly upkeep of patient washroom and reception area
-implementation of marketing, promotion
-communication and follow up with the lab
-communication and follow up with vendors
-planning continuing education
These responsibilities require focus, attention, detail, someone with self-direction and organizational skills -an analytical thinker. This same concept can also be applied in the clinical area of the practice – responsibilities associated with sterilization, operatory preparation, inventory and lab duties. They are all essential to providing patient care but occur independently of patient care.
B – Behavioral:
This arena has to do solely with the business of our patient’s business and is often the most overlooked area. These responsibilities often occur with patients and are focused on patient care, connection and communication. While some of the duties require planning and preparation, events often occur in the moment, can not be predicted and must be responded to in real time. This job requires an individual with big picture thinking. The best people are those with sensibility, grace, maturity, empathy, curiosity, good listening skills, confidence, good command of language, and the ability to think on their feet.
The key in this role: to be effective with PEOPLE.
The responsibilities that most often fall under this heading are:
-working with new patients from initial telephone call through treatment planning
-supporting patients in the moment whether on the telephone or in person
-urgency triage and establishing clear expectations with urgency patients
-maintaining oversight of patients in process – those for whom treatment has been
recommended but not yet completed
-organizing and managing the “lost souls” project – those for whom treatment has been
recommended and have dropped out of sight
-handling fees and ﬁnancial arrangement discussions that are not properly handled
-addressing patient complaints and issues in a timely manner
-ensuring that patient interests and concerns are clearly understood by all
-supporting patients by helping them price-test their treatment options
-ensuring that all patient-contact staff are prepared behaviorally for patients before they
-identifying patterns and trends with patients as they occur
-maintaining oversight of the schedule and making appointments as necessary
-managing patient correspondence and followup
-coordinating non-clinical aspects of care with specialists and referrals
-internal training on communications and patient relations
-connecting with referral sources, public relations, networking
C – Clinical:
Events related to the delivery of care. Commands most of the focus of the practice and is often the most up-to-date area. Requires the attention and oversight of the dentist/business owner. Removes the dentist/owner from constant oversight of the two other areas, making it even more important that self-directed, well-matched, highly-effective people are placed in the non-clinical roles.
As you can see, the non-clinical staff is responsible for two of the three critical areas of the practice. These staff members are often asked to perform both Administrative and Behavioral roles simultaneously while the responsibilities are very different from one another and require different skill sets. It becomes clear that when we ask them to assume both roles, they are split between two very different responsibilities, making them choose in the moment which is more important. This usually creates more problems, and sets them up for failure, making them less effective or efficient in either of these areas.
It is our opinion that when you separate the Administrative from Behavioral roles and hire/assign responsibilities based upon strength in one of these two areas, you encourage deep competency, similar to your competency in the area of dentistry. Each person performs at a higher level when they are focused on only one arena and they become more successful than if they were asked to do everything with less effectiveness.
This is not to say that a person who is assigned administrative responsibilities can’t support the one who is responsible for patient connection by answering the phone, welcoming patients or checking patients out when necessary. There are always exceptions. Some practices opt for a third person to act as a greeter or to handle phone triage and appointment scheduling. Remember, the goal is to encourage deep competency in their skill set and prevent team members from performing in areas where they are not as skilled.
This concept may require you to think differently about the individuals, skill sets and responsibilities in your practice. A good exercise for each of your non-clinical team members is to have them make a list of their duties and determine whether it is administrative or behavioral (we hope you aren’t asking them to also perform clinical roles too!). Ask them to assess how much of their work load is in each of these arenas and discuss how roles might be shifted to better serve this new model.
Take home message: You most likely don’t need more people serving in a non-clinical role – you just need the right people, with the right skill sets, in the right positions, which creates a better, more efficient and effective systems.
A caveat here – you may discover that you have team members who share similar skill sets leaving you with no one to serve an administrative or behavioral role. This may be the eureka moment that explains why certain problems keep occurring in your practice. This process may also cause you to consider restructuring your non-clinical staff altogether. We can help you consider your options and sort through the implications of making changes to better serve the practice and your patients.