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How to Hire Office Staff for a Medical or Dental Practice

How to Hire Office Staff for a Medical or Dental Practice

By: John Rossheim, Monster Senior Contributing Writer

What tops the to-do lists of physicians and dentists as they walk into their offices for another hectic day of seeing patients? It’s not likely to be that opening on their staff for a medical office receptionist, medical billing clerk or dental office manager. But the failure to devote time and resources to your small business hiring strategy for nonclinical positions is a common mistake for even the most talented of clinicians in private practice.

“Physicians are trained in medicine — they don’t study how to run a business,” says Henry Schnierer, executive vice president at Comforce Staffing Services in Paramus, New Jersey. And a key part of running a successful business and practice is knowing how to hire office staff, from office manager or practice administrator, to receptionist, to coders and billers.

What can go wrong if you hire office staff that’s incompetent or only in it for the steady salary? Plenty: Failure to consistently send out patient reminders or test results can harm patients’ health and bring on a law suit. Communications breakdowns between the front office and clinicians can result in a malpractice claim. And a single HIPAA violation can bring a fine of up to $50,000. Of course, you might also lose patients and miss chances to practice healing the way you want to.

So whether you’re starting up a practice or replacing a retiring worker, it’s wise to look at hiring to attract top talent as one of the best opportunities to practice as you wish. Here are some suggested approaches.

Don’t Give Hiring Short Shrift
When the pressure is on to open the doors to your new practice or replace a soon-to-depart receptionist or scheduler, you’ll be tempted to rush. But you’ve got strong reasons to avoid that temptation and hire the right candidate.

“I used to hire the first warm body that walked into the building,” says Brian Nylaan, DDS, who has a solo practice in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I didn’t always do my homework in terms of talking with the candidate and having the whole team do so, because I just wanted to end the stress of having a position vacant.”

After enduring the frustrations and loss of patients caused in part by some “clock punchers” on his staff, Dr. Nylaan decided to reinvest in his hiring process. “In the last three years I’ve initiated more staff changes than in the previous 22 years,” he says. “I defined for myself what I need in terms of teammates. My team takes things personally, say when a patient misses an appointment, because they are motivated to help people be healthier.”

Take time to define and detail each position before posting it. Medical and dental receptionists, for example, need to know much more than how to say hello and handle a multi-line phone. “Receptionists should be customer-service oriented and be able to handle patients who are under stress due to their medical problems,” says Schnierer. “A good receptionist makes patients feel at ease, helps them fill out forms and handles computer work.”

In putting together a job description for positions with patient contact, consider your local market. For example, in parts of the Southwest, bilingual office professionals may give your practice a competitive advantage.

Check and Test the First Cut of Candidates
To limit the time that you and fellow clinicians spend interviewing candidates, and to ensure qualified hires, get beneath the surface and test the pool of candidates who appear to be qualified. “It’s essential that you check the credentials of candidates,” says Rhonda Buckholtz, a vice president at the American Academy of Professional Coders. Medical coders, for example, can be checked on AAPC’s credentials verification page.

Depending on the office position you’re filling, you might order a criminal background check, credentials and licensing checks, and professional and personal references. References can be hard to track down, but they are indispensible; an applicant who can’t name three friends or colleagues to give positive references is a questionable hire. To judge professional competence, “we use Internet-based standardized tests,” says Schnierer.

Create a Deliberate, Thorough Interviewing Process
Once you’ve qualified a smaller group of candidates, it’s time to conduct a series of interviews, including sessions with prospective peers in your office. Take pains to ensure that you stay on the right side of employment law, for example by avoiding asking questions that go to the candidate’s age or marital status. You might want to engage a human resources consultant or staffing firm. “We have a standardized interview process,” says Schnierer. “We ask what were the candidate’s last three professional accomplishments, and we assess how they come across as individuals.”

Dr. Nylaan has delegated initial stages of the hiring process to his office administrator, who is also a dental assistant. “Kris receives the resumes, does preliminary interviews and narrows the initial pool of 10 to 15 candidates down to four or five. Then I interview them and ask questions like, ‘Why are you in this business?’”

Do your best to preview how each candidate will fare in the busy routine of your office. “I try to evaluate what type of workloads they can handle,” says Buckholtz. “In healthcare you need someone who can multitask without getting overwhelmed. Have them tell how they’ve handled special situations, how they’ve streamlined workflows, and what they like most and least about their most recent jobs.”

Hire Office Staff for the Long Term
What should be the guiding light of your hiring process? Long-term thinking. Because hiring the first candidate who will accept your low-ball salary offer is likely a false economy, especially if the new hire fails to maximize your charge capture or wastes clinicians’ time due to poor management skills.

Turnover may be even more costly to a small dental or medical practice than it is in the corporate world. “There’s nothing worse for your practice than revolving-door staff,” says Buckholtz. “If the office is in turmoil, patients will be too.”