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Intranet, distance learning can help
Internet is perhaps the least expensive and most flexible staff training solution available.
If you work in a contemporary veterinary practice, you are probably all too familiar with the continuous demands of developing and maintaining a well-trained staff.
These demands are not specific to veterinary medicine, however. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has just released the results of an extensive survey that confirms that the majority of the business world is seeing the exact same workplace trends that we are seeing in veterinary medicine.
New staff members are arriving with less basic education and social skills than in past decades. And Generation X'ers (those born between 1964 and 1985) have an intense desire to continue to learn new skills in order to stay engaged and motivated. Unfortunately, Generation X'ers do not share their Baby Boomer parents' sense of loyalty to their employer. X'ers will leave and go to the next practice down the road at the drop of a hat, taking all of the training you invested with them.
Therefore, it is the wise practice owners and managers that realize that while training is an important component of a staff retention plan, it is not capable of keeping staff loyal and motivated on its own — this takes a combination of efforts.
Even without the specific challenges presented by the Generation X workforce, which is the majority of our current support staff members, staff training is an awesome responsibility. Studies estimate that 50 percent of your staff's medical knowledge becomes outdated within three to five years. This means if you want to practice "progressive medicine" you must "refresh" 10-15 percent of your staff's knowledge every year just to stay current. That is a lot of learning per lifetime if you plan on practicing for 20, 30 or 40 years!
This sounds pretty daunting before we even discuss the continual shortage of veterinary technicians. Schools continue to ramp up their programs and graduate more technicians, but they are not keeping up with demand, so every year it seems much harder to find good ones. Once again, retention becomes a huge factor in the technician shortage as the career life expectancy of a technician struggles to stay above the seven-year mark.
Now that we have defined the magnitude of the "training gap" in veterinary medicine, how can we develop strategies to meet these demands?
There are two immediate solutions available to help practice managers and owners succeed. The first is through the increased use of business technology to automate as many functions as possible in order to reduce our dependency on staff. The second option is to embrace contemporary media options in order to meet training needs.
Veterinarians see a clear value in having the latest medical technology and the newest pharmaceuticals, but how about the latest business technologies and paradigms? It is not atypical to enter a veterinary practice today and find an ultrasound, an endoscope, a state-of-the-art, in-house laboratory and a computer system with basic practice software from the1990s.
Business technology abounds, and it is not just for the Fortune 500 companies with large operating budgets anymore. The business technology market today is populated by many products designed for use in the small business environment (interestingly known as the largest segment of the business market).
It's time for veterinary practices to embrace the potential gains offered by these technologies. These technologies have the ability to reduce the number of staff needed to maintain practice operations, or to decrease the number of highly trained individuals needed by a practice.
Let's take a look at a state-of-the-art veterinary practice. Telephones have left the reception area so that receptionists can focus on the clients in front of them. Central switchboards have been replaced by electronic customer relationship management (eCRM) software. Placing clients on hold so you can walk someplace else to locate information (such as a doctor or a medical record) no longer happens when wireless digital headsets are used. Writing messages on little pink pieces of paper is out, and voice mail is in. Paper medical records stuffed in hanging file folders have been replaced by electronic medical records. Showing a client an educational videotape doesn't happen; placing a tablet computer in their hands to watch a streaming video presentation does. One of our clients recently designed an emergency practice without a reception counter. Instead, the staff will follow the client throughout the practice space with tablet PCs.
Practice management software that is template driven and medical-records driven decreases the amount of work required to process a case while building in quality controls to reduce errors. Software with workflow management capabilities reduces labor, reduces errors, and makes the staff happier and more productive. In most practices, the information technology system is the hardest working and most productive equipment in the building, so you should make every effort to keep it current. The standard rule of thumb is to plan on replacing one-third of your hardware each year so no piece of equipment is ever more than three years old.
Software should be upgraded every time there is the potential for a reasonable return on investment.
There are new paradigms in small business staffing and technology in developing and training the staff of the future. Today's business world is fast paced. Staff members desire high quality, personalized on-demand training, on a flexible schedule, and you want it to be cost efficient. This list of demands would have been impossible to meet only 10 years ago, but it's within arm's reach today. Web-based training (WBT) offers your staff self-paced, on-demand, just-in-time training on virtually any topic.
The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) 2001 State of the Industry Report found that the percentage of organizations using the Internet or Intranet for training purposes grew from 3 percent in 1996 to 40 percent in 1999. The U.S. Department of Education reported that 90 percent of two- and four-year colleges in the United States plan to offer at least one distance learning course by 2005. This is up from 84 percent in 2002 and 58 percent in 1998. Technology-assisted learning has grown from a $2 billion industry in 1999 to a projected $23 billion in 2003.
Isn't it time for veterinary medicine to embrace this incredible use of technology?
Terms to know
Many terms associated with technology-assisted learning sound similar and are used interchangeably, whether or not it is correct to do so. Below is a brief description of some of the more important definitions you should be familiar with.
- C-learning is what we are most familiar with. It is traditional instructor-led classes that may be face-to-face at a meeting, or broadcast via cable or satellite.
- E-learning is the use of electronic technology to facilitate the learning process. The most common examples are computer-based learning (often in the form of CDs) and Internet-based learning.
- Distance learning indicates that there is distance between the instructor and the student. This may be a physical distance, a time distance or both. Technology is often used as the bridge between the student and the instructor.
- Online or Web-based learning: These terms are essentially interchangeable and are best defined as training that is delivered via a browser over the Internet.
- Synchronous refers to real-time learning events in which all participants share the same experience at the same time. The most common form of synchronous training is traditional instructor-led classroom training. However, with today's technology, a synchronous training event may include a chat session between students in the same course, or the use of a telephone during a computer-based presentation. This last example is rapidly becoming the preferred method of software training for many computer companies.
- Asynchronous refers to learning events that can be accessed at different times and in different places. A student does not interact with the instructor or other students at the same time. Web-based training and computer-based training are the most common examples of asynchronous training; however, all printed materials including books and journals are actually tools of asynchronous learning.
Training strategy development
Synchronous training is the type of training we are most familiar with. It allows for real-time interaction between participants and allows the instructor to respond quickly to queries from students. The instructor can also adapt the presentation to the specific needs of the audience much more quickly than is possible during an asynchronous training session. Synchronous training also allows for the "human touch" that is preferred by some adult learners.
Unfortunately, there are several disadvantages to synchronous training. The need to coordinate schedules between students and instructors is perhaps the most restrictive. Would your entire staff be able to attend a lecture on the same day? Who would be available to see your patients if the entire practice staff were away at a seminar? And, would you be willing to pay all of their associated travel costs? Standardizing the material is a challenge because an instructor may have to leave out concepts that may be key to you but not to the general audience attending, or a question may cause an instructor to deviate from the required material, or the instructor may run out of time and not be able to get through the entire lesson.
Synchronous learning does not allow the student to proceed at their own pace or explore related topics of interest, and students may feel pressure to keep up with the rest of the class and not ask too many questions.
Asynchronous learning solves many of the disadvantages associated with synchronous learning. It eliminates the need for everyone to be together at the same time and/or in the same place. This may mean that more staff members have the opportunity to receive training and may finish it within a shorter period of time. It also allows individuals to have access to experts and authorities in almost any given field.
Asynchronous training allows for delivery of consistent information, and it permits a student to learn at his or her own pace and to explore other avenues of interest in addition to the "required" course content. Asynchronous training solutions are particularly attractive to emergency practice staffs due to the nature of their work schedules and caseloads.
Each of these training methods has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Those individuals responsible for developing training programs have tried to take the best of each and combine strategies for courses. This new approach is referred to as "blended learning." Many of the courses you will see offered in the future will use blended learning techniques.
When developing your strategy for taking part in training, it is best to identify your training needs first, and then locate the most effective tools available to meet them.
Preparing a training budget is of course a responsible exercise for any business person, but training should be viewed as an investment that produces dividends in employee productivity and job satisfaction instead of an expense.
Monitoring staff members' progress and maintaining accountability may initially pose a challenge for some managers, but in many instances you will find monitoring e-learning easier than monitoring c-learning.
Most training programs that are properly developed will have testing and/or certification procedures built into the program. Recognizing a staff member's successful completion of a training program is an important step in encouraging a lifelong commitment to self-improvement in your team members and ultimately added value of your staff.
Where to begin
The power of the Internet as a staff training tool is awesome. The Internet is perhaps the least expensive and most flexible staff training solution available; it is available 24/7/365 — anyplace you can find a computer and a connection!
There are three primary ways the Internet can help meet your staff training needs: as a reference tool, through on-line courses, and as a medium for networking with colleagues. If you have never investigated Internet education, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Web site (aahanet.org) is a great place to begin. It offers all three types of on-line education.
As a reference tool, the AAHA site offers such resources as posted information and links to organizations such as state veterinary medical associations, veterinary colleges and other veterinary or animal-related organizations. The Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association (JAAHA) is no longer available in a printed format, it is only available on-line. Each issue contains a powerful search engine to help you quickly locate the information you are seeking. The journal also offers additional features impossible to provide in a paper magazine, including, e-mail alerts that bring to your attention information regarding a topic you have expressed interest in. Links to references cited in each article are also available so you do not have to search your own library.
Online courses are also available through the AAHA Web site. The CVC/AAHA Distance Education Veterinary Technology Program (DEVTP) developed in conjunction with the Cedar Valley Community College is amongst its most popular offering. There is also the Distance Education Veterinary Assistant and Receptionist Certificate Program as well. These courses each use a variety of media to present material to students and to foster discussions and feedback. The flexibility of online education allows students working full time in a veterinary practice the opportunity to advance their education and skills in a convenient and cost-effective manner.
There are many other sites where you may find all of the resources explained above. Two of the most popular are the Veterinary Information Network (vin.com) and the Veterinary Support Personnel Network (vspn.org). VIN is exclusively for veterinarians and has an annual membership fee. VSPN is free to all veterinary staff members. Log on at any time to find the latest information on all of the hot topics in veterinary medicine. Vetmedteam.com, lifelearn.com and 4act.com are a few more of the valuable resources within our profession. Outside of our profession, many college and business support groups offer training online. Exceptional training programs are only a telephone call away or better yet, just a mouse click away.
Mr. Oster, is a practice management consultant with Veterinary Healthcare Consultants LLC, a national consulting firm dedicated to providing innovative and resourceful business solutions for veterinary professionals and humane organizations. He is certified as a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), the highest level of certification offered by the Society for Human Resource Management. Prior to consulting, Mr. Oster served as hospital administrator for a 16-doctor, 24-hour, full-service, veterinary hospital for six years. He is a frequent lecturer and author. He may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
Thomas A. Lynch is the founder of Veterinary Healthcare Consultants, LLC and has more than a decade of veterinary practice management experience. Earlier in his career, Tom served as hospital administrator for a multi-doctor, 24-hour, full-service veterinary hospital. He also served as a member of the adjunct faculty at a private New England college where he taught various business courses. Tom holds undergraduate degrees in business management and marketing, a master's degree with a specialization in management and a concentration in veterinary practice administration, and a Certificate in Veterinary Practice Administration from the Veterinary Management Institute at Purdue University. For more information call (800) 467-0627; www.vhc.biz.