Effective staff training solutions (Proceedings)


For any practice, program or promotion to succeed, regardless of the objectives, the people who are responsible for carrying out the details of the program must be educated on what they are expected to do. That is the core definition of training - educating the force on what is expected of them.

For any practice, program or promotion to succeed, regardless of the objectives, the people who are responsible for carrying out the details of the program must be educated on what they are expected to do. That is the core definition of training - educating the force on what is expected of them.

Remember, training is an ongoing process - it'll never be completed or over. Just like housekeeping or even medical record documentation, it'll always require updating, refining and implementation.

There is an abundance of evidence to support the belief that a well trained workforce is more productive, happier and more stable (less turnover) than a comparable group of people without clear directions or instructions. In that sense training is not a detraction from the work at hand, but a means of performing the work better and more efficiently. Those practices who set aside time and resources for regular staff training are not only more profitable because the staff is efficient, but they are simply nicer places to work because the staff is more focused.

Just as a practice must embrace new medical ideas and methods to stay competitive, that same practice must find ways to keep the staff up to date on issues and directives. The traditional workplace of "9-5 and closed for lunch" is no longer the normal in the veterinary profession so traditional training methods like meetings and seminars are not the answer to every problem. Those methods still have their place in the training schedule, but alternative methods must be employed if the business is to stay ahead of the problems.

Leadership Will Make or Break the Training

Every training program is destined to succeed or doomed to fail according to the emphasis it gets from the leadership. If the practice owners show and support the message that all training - medical, safety, and procedural - is a mandatory component of employment, then the staff will take it seriously. If on the other hand, the leadership doesn't show genuine support for training programs, the staff will be unenthusiastic about anything that is perceived as "more work" or disrupting the normal day's events.

Leaders must also follow the rules that are in place for other workers. The staff will not abide by the safety rules if the veterinarian owner of the practice believes in a "Do as I say, not as I do" philosophy. This goes for attendance at required training functions also. The presence and participation of the practice leaders sends the message that the issue is important. Likewise, the leader's absence sends the message that this stuff isn't serious enough to get their attention, so it must not be important to us either.

Perhaps the best way for the leadership to support a training program is to make time in the schedule for it. The successful practices have recognized that staffing at a level barely adequate to cover the workload on an average day leaves little room in the schedule for staff improvement.

Finally, the leadership must create the expectation that all staff members will participate and support the training. Practice owners must not allow associate veterinarians or senior technical staff members to disrupt the timing or flow of the training. Routine treatments, telephone calls and deadlines are important, but so is training and neither should overshadow the other. Only the senior leadership of the hospital can make training as important as any other part of the practice.

Stages of Training

Just as there are various stages of medicine, the same is true for adult learning. We are more likely to influence someone's decisions or habits earlier in the process rather than later. Once the "problem" has taken hold, it's far harder to cure it than it was to prevent it in the first place.

By exposing the staff to training early they are more likely to develop the habits outlined in the training and less likely to pick up "bad" habits from an existing staff member. When a new person joins the team they are in a learning phase and not yet an indispensable person. The longer they are at the practice, the more responsibility they gain and in most cases, the less receptive they are to changing their habits.

Another reason to get the training done early is simply practicality. The newly hired staff member has the time to sit down and go through detailed materials. Even after just a month on the job, it's unlikely that a staff member can (will?) find the time to go through the materials as they would have during their first few days.

In most practices, there are probably several staff members in each stage of training at any given time - that's normal. One of the many jobs of the veterinary practice leader is to coordinate the various needs of each staff member with the needs of the practice. Only by understanding the different stages of training, their uses and objectives, can you institute an effective training program in your practice.

Styles of Training

The One-on-one style of training is definitely the most effective when structured properly. This style allows individual attention to the student and gives the instructor immediate feedback on the student's progress. In order for this style of training to be effective, it must be structured - there must be a list of tasks to accomplish in a logical order. The down side of this style of training is obvious: time. The instructor must have the ability, inclination and time to spend with the student.

This is not the same thing as "Follow Jane around, she'll show you what you need to know." That's not training at all, it's simply throwing the person into the work and expecting that they will eventually learn things.

The On-the-job style of training is the one most often used by the veterinary practice because it is the best for making sure the student learns the task a specific way. It can be the most permanent form of training since the student continually practices what they've learned.

Contrary to popular belief, this style is often the most difficult for a student. First, the student must be in the "learning mode." Many staff members are too pre-occupied with accomplishing daily "tasks" or concerned about other problems to absorb the training. Additionally, unless the student understands the "background" of the task and the theories behind the steps, they will never really understand how to accomplish the goal. In other words, they learn the steps but not the concepts so when something goes wrong, they do not have the knowledge base to solve the problem. When this happens, the process stops and they must get further instructions from the supervisor to continue.

Formal meetings are the method of choice for providing background or foundation-type knowledge. They are also the most effective at direct dissemination of information to large groups - such as daily briefings and updates on projects. This is the usually the best forum for inservice-type training on procedural matters.

Most gatherings of people in the veterinary practice will quickly turn to into "gripe sessions" if there is not an agenda and purpose for the meeting. These sessions are difficult to coordinate in busy practices if the goal is 100% staff participation; it is more achievable if the meeting is recorded and the staff members that miss it (to answer phones, personal time off, etc) can receive the same information that the main group has.

Video/computer-based training is fast becoming the most popular style for the veterinary practice. The visual impact of actually watching the procedure or task performed and the ability to stop the action and review the procedure as often as the student needs are powerful benefits. The ability for videos to be viewed individually by many staff members without a major time investment by the supervisor or trainer is another plus.

However useful video and computer-based training becomes, it still lacks one critical element of learning - the ability to ask questions when something doesn't make sense. For that you need a live person. So it is critical that any video/computer instruction be followed up immediately with one-on-one time from a qualified instructor. Without this follow-up and interaction, the video is just an exercise and not a training tool.

Correspondence training is simply the use of written materials to disseminate information; this is very useful for issuing directives or making time-sensitive announcements. The most common form of correspondence training is the memorandum. Although this style of training lacks the personal interaction necessary for learning complex tasks it is useful because it can be "given" to an unlimited number of students at the same time. Many practices use a "Monday Morning Memo" to clarify special happenings in the coming week and to keep a lid on the "rumor mill."

The written training has one major drawback that must be understood and overcome for it to be effective: the student must be motivated or forced to read it!

The biggest benefit of using outside courses to train staff members is the ability to capitalize on the talents of outside experts. The outside courses can be veterinary specific (e.g., veterinary CE meetings) or can be general business knowledge. The best way to use these courses is to require the staff member(s) that attends the session to bring back the main ideas that could be useful and to present an in-service session to the rest of the staff. Perhaps the best reward of outside courses is that the staff member has "ownership power" of the ideas and tasks. When someone feels in control of their job, they are usually more productive and happy.

Outside courses can be very useful but they have a few drawbacks, namely the scheduling and coverage conflicts that arise when a staff member is away from the practice.

Use a Training Schedule

No matter what the task at hand, having an outline of the major milestones of the project certainly makes the project easier and more complete. The same is true for continuing education and training. Practice leaders who take the time to prepare a training schedule are significantly more likely to accomplish their training goals than those who rely on their memory and the demands of the everyday workload to determine the topics.

Begin by asking each staff member if they feel the training they have received is adequate. If they say no, listen to their suggestions and respond accordingly. By surveying them about what they consider to be the most serious training needs in their job, you get valuable information and they get the satisfaction of knowing they have been heard. Rank the topics by importance - the highest ranking topic will be the first one delivered; the lowest ranking will be at the end of the schedule. Assign just one or two topics to each training date and post the schedule for everyone to see. Keep the schedule current. When you have to make changes or adjustments, indicate them on the written schedule so that everyone is up to date.

Assign staff members to be instructors for each topic and be sure to task ALL staff members. The best way for someone to learn a topic is by having to teach someone else! Let them know what date the session will be delivered and how long they should take for the message. Give them (or point them in the right direction) any resources on the topic that are available and make sure they understand what the "focus" of the session should be.

Remember, planning is the key to success when it comes to training and the first step is creating a schedule so that everyone knows the plan.


In today's very tight job market, there is definitely a correlation between the practices with the lowest turnover in staff are not coincidently the same ones that "invest" in their staff. It's also no surprise that the companies that continually rank as the most "customer oriented" are also the ones that have very in-depth staff orientation and training programs.

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