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Rockin' the exam room (Proceedings)


Winning teams enjoy the right combination of strong coaching and committed players. Follow this practice playbook to lead your hospital team to victory.

Winning teams enjoy the right combination of strong coaching and committed players. Follow this practice playbook to lead your hospital team to victory.

Is your team a Super Bowl contender? The answer depends on how players react to challenges. For instance, Mrs. Johnson is angry because her dog started limping and she's sure the courtesy pedicure you performed—two months ago—caused the problem. Mrs. Johnson also wants to return flea preventives you recommended because her friend, who's a nurse, said they were too strong. Your team's response makes the difference between a successful and struggling practice.

A winning staff is behind every first-rate practice. Like professional sports teams, the best hospital teams possess leadership, dedication, proper training, performance rewards, goals, and, most important, a fun atmosphere. Try these 10 tips to turn your team into Super Bowl champions.

1. Set team goals

Strong leaders coach winners. As practice owner, you must play quarterback, earn respect, and help players understand the game plan. Mission statements keep your team focused on goals. Review your mission statement regularly, and make changes. If you haven't written a mission, hold a contest and award prizes to staff members who best capture your practice's aspirations and commitments.

At Metzger Animal Hospital in State College, Pa., I offered $100 for the best mission statement. The results were amazing. I combined three entries and awarded each a prize. Our mission reads: "Expectations will not be met at Metzger Animal Hospital; they will be surpassed. The team at Metzger Animal Hospital is committed to providing superior, advanced medical services coupled with exceptional customer satisfaction. We will anticipate the needs of our clients and patients while remembering to respect ourselves, co-workers, clients, and most of all, the animals we care for."

To unite your team, set one major goal annually. For example, we promoted a preanesthetic testing plan, and now we enjoy 80 percent compliance ("Run Preanesthetic Tests," July 1997). We also started an annual open house that attracts hundreds.

2. Draft good players

Football teams that draft the wrong players never win. Likewise, practice owners or managers who hire unsuitable associates, technicians, receptionists, and kennel attendants never reach their full potential. First interviews don't always provide adequate information. Check references and, if possible, ask candidates to work with team members so you can gauge skills and compatibility. You'll likely trade your new draft pick if he or she is impolite and unenthusiastic.

Football coaches don't draft a player until the candidate runs the 40-yard dash. In the same way, let your prospective employee prove his or her abilities with a 90-day trial period. Based on the assessment, keep valuable team members, or trade players who don't belong on your hospital team.

3. Create a playbook

Teams without plans fail, so develop a practice playbook. Hospital protocols and employee training manuals as well as client-education materials are essential. Include information about employee benefits, discounts, trial periods, performance evaluations, and termination policies in your manual. Quarterbacks get sacked when the offensive line acts independently. To avoid injury, be consistent and ensure your hospital team understands messages in client-education materials.

At Metzger Animal Hospital, we mail clients preanesthetic testing forms with instructions before procedures to increase compliance and decrease front-office anxiety. We also increased geriatric testing compliance with informative brochures and exam-room posters ("Help Clients See Geriatrics," June 1997).

4. Schedule team practices

Mandatory monthly staff meetings let the quarterback share team challenges and successes. Of course, every team needs nourishment to perform, so provide a snack during the meeting. Use the first half to introduce new employees, products, and services. During the second half, staff members should huddle in small groups to discuss position-related items. Role-playing lets teammates practice educating clients.

Your team's most important meeting may be the daily five-minute huddle. All Metzger Animal Hospital employees meet at the procedure board before lunch to review the morning's progress and the afternoon's plans. Everyone knows patients' status and scheduled procedures, so they can effectively answer clients' questions.

5. Evaluate team performance

Without regular feedback, even happy employees become dissatisfied. Are you evaluating your players regularly? Remember to reward the pros. Rookie players should receive a 90-day written evaluation, and veterans should receive six-month written reviews. Sign the rookie if he or she exceeds your expectations.

And staff members also should evaluate doctors and practice managers. My hospital team was reluctant at first, but everyone soon realized the benefits of mutual evaluation. It shows you value the team's opinion.

6. Reward top players

After a win, quarterbacks buy lunch for their offensive line. Likewise, you must adequately compensate great players or they'll become free agents. Rewards include raises, health insurance, paid vacations, continuing education programs, a retirement plan, and bonuses. Give positive reinforcement immediately after a success to re-emphasize your expectations and set an example. Such instant rewards as lunch or saying "Thank you!" are inexpensive but powerful.

Sometimes creative rewards are necessary. Metzger Animal Hospital uses "Metzger Bucks" daily to reward staff members who gain owner compliance on flea, heartworm, and dental products, and preanesthetic and geriatric testing. Sometimes staff members earn bucks just for guessing a radio song or being cheerful. Team members cash in Metzger Bucks for prizes at the annual Christmas party. Last Christmas I wore a Santa hat to Wal-Mart and took pictures of myself with certain prizes for display at the party. Some staff members went home with televisions and bikes. The incentive system recognizes hard workers with more than routine quarterly raises and bonuses.

7. Use the backup quarterback

Do you let your associate call a play now and then? Rookie players need to learn from veterans so mistakes aren't repeated. Successful sports teams nurture their second- and third-string quarterbacks in case the starter gets injured. Delegate responsibilities to ensure long-term practice success.

Associates frequently see more medical and surgical cases so the practice owner can focus on business. Consciously involve associates in the decision-making process to show you value their opinions. To keep your team mentally fit, send associates to continuing education seminars and conventions.

8. Change plays as needed

Don't be predictable and allow the defense to beat you. Passing on fourth down is risky and against odds, but sometimes you don't have a choice. Don't get caught behind the times, because other practices will surpass you. Recommend pain management, preanesthetic testing, senior care programs, and home dental-care products. What's next? Promote unique services and develop such profit centers as exotics, endoscopy, and ultrasound.

9. Learn from mistakes

Failure brings learning opportunities. Ask for team input to improve procedures, policies, and rules. Update your hospital procedure manual annually and ask for rookies' suggestions to improve your orientation program. Ask clients' opinions of your newsletter and continuing-education materials' content and clarity. Then create customized handouts based on their comments.

When we mailed a client survey, the answers surprised us. Clients gave us a good overall rating but pointed out a few weaknesses we never noticed. If you resist change, teammates receive negative feedback and practice policies become outdated.

10. Play and have fun

Fun is contagious. True success involves working hard, reaching your goals, and enjoying the experience. Show your team how to make work enjoyable, and let them show you as well. Take your team bowling, go-cart racing, or to a movie. I treat my hospital staff to quarterly outings—Christmas parties, scavenger hunts, Labor Day pool parties, and bowling in February—and we never talk about work while playing.

Now you're ready to be Super Bowl champions. Organize a well-rounded team by setting goals, hiring productive teammates, creating a plan, and participating in team meetings. As a strong quarterback, you'll need patience, dedication, and emotional and financial resources. But it's worth the effort when your team plays to its full potential and you accept the trophy.

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