Scheduling woes can leave clients and team members in tatters. Fix them with these strategies.
The receptionist says, "Hi, Mr. Collins, I'm calling to confirm your appointment at 9 a.m. tomorrow." Her brow furrows. "Well, we have you scheduled at 9. Unfortunately, there's another appointment at 9:30." Mr. Collins has written down his appointment time incorrectly. The receptionist studies the schedule, looking for a way to make it work. "You know what, Mr. Collins, come on in at 9:30. We'll fit you in," she says with a smile.
You probably face scheduling challenges every day. Clients arrive late—or not at all—which throws your appointments for a loop. Team members take vacations, leaving you shorthanded. Emergencies happen. Whether you're dealing with your appointment schedule or your team schedule, you probably make plenty of adjustments each week. So how can you do what's best for both your practice and your team members?"
The answer: Find a way to make it work, says Debbie Allaben Gair, CVPM, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and management recruiter and coach with Bridging the Gap in Sparta, Mich. Perhaps that means calling the next client to ask if he or she could come in a little late. Or hiring a team member who can cover a variety of shifts. But whatever the solution, you can't fix the problem if you don't know what it is. Here are three signs your schedule is broken—and advice for fixing it.
A client calls your practice in a panic. Her golden retriever spent the morning running around the yard and came inside with a considerable limp. Although the dog doesn't appear to be in too much pain, the client would like to see a veterinarian today. But your schedule is jam-packed all afternoon, and you'll be lucky to go home on time as it is. What do you do?
Try using E-slots (or emergency slots) to avoid this problem, Gair says. These openings allow you to build in time for seeing emergencies or drop-ins without putting an unnecessary strain on your team members—or making clients with appointments wait longer. Block off one 20-minute E-slot for each doctor per four-hour block. For example, each doctor might have one E-slot in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Use caution when scheduling E-slots, however. Reserving too many means you won't have time to serve the rest of your clients. And keep in mind that E-slots are set aside for client-perceived emergencies. While receptionists are usually knowledgeable about pets, it's the doctor's job to diagnose. Even if you're sure the pet would be fine overnight, if the client deems the situation an emergency, give him or her an E-slot that day.
One of the top five reasons team members leave a practice is unhappiness with scheduling, says Sheila Grosdidier, BS, RVT, a Firstline board member and partner at VMC Inc. in Evergreen, Colo. It's frustrating when team members must cancel plans due to a schedule change or receive the schedule just a few days in advance. "People are entitled to a life outside of the office," Grosdidier says.
The most important thing to consider when putting together a team schedule, Gair says, is to meet the practice's needs first and team members' needs second. Team members may not always be crazy about working Saturdays or working until close. But someone has to fill those slots. "You have a certain amount of hours to schedule, so you have to figure out how to make it work," Gair says. "Sometimes that means getting creative."
One way to round out your schedule and keep team members happy is to ask employees for the three things they want most from the schedule and the three things they want least. For example, an employee might request to work 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesdays and not at all on Monday nights. Do your best to meet as many of these requests as possible, but make it clear to employees that you must schedule for the practice's needs first.
A doctor is ready to see his next patient, but his assistant is nowhere to be found. Or the phone is ringing off the hook because the receptionist is helping elsewhere in the practice. Emergencies arise, and team members must be willing to adjust on the fly. But if you catch yourself shorthanded too often, the real problem might be your schedule.
The solution: Plan in zones, Grosdidier says. Picture your facility as a baseball field. It's your job to ensure all team members are in the right positions, ready to play ball. Veterinarians need a strong supporting team, both in the treatment area zone and at the front desk zone. Dr. Wallace could be in charge of the red team in exam room 1, and Dr. Franklin could lead the blue team in exam room 2. Each team might have one technician in the exam room with the doctor and one in the lab, as well as one receptionist fielding calls.
Another scheduling hurdle is vacation time. Consider using a blended team base—one that utilizes both full-time and part-time employees—to help cover shifts while employees are gone, Grosdidier says. Another trend in veterinary practices is overhiring, where you employ an additional worker or two who can fill in when needed. Grosdidier recommends finding a "utility player" who has enough knowledge to fill in at a variety of positions in your practice. Guarantee this employee a set number of hours per week, then adjust his or her schedule as needed. You'll love having the option to call such a worker when you're scrambling to cover a shift.
Fixing a shredded schedule can be easy, and it's best to catch problems before they become major issues. Stay alert for signs of trouble, and you'll create an efficient practice with happy patients and team members. Now, if Mr. Collins would just write down his appointment time correctly, you'd be worry-free.