Twenty or more years ago, hiring a practice manager wasn’t necessarily a difficult task. It often meant simply looking for someone with strong organizational and filing skills and perhaps clerical experience.
Today, it’s a different story.
Today’s practice mangers wear many hats. In addition to being operational directors, they often serve not only as human resources managers, but also as financial officers, information technology consultants, marketing gurus, and billing/documentation experts. This is particularly true for those working in smaller practices or for solo practitioners. Practice managers in these settings have been—and always will be—a jack-of-all-trades, so to speak.
Philip L. Dickey, MPH, PHR, HR services director/partner at DoctorsManagement, LLC, a consulting firm in Knoxville, TN says the role of practice manger has evolved over time and continues to expand to include a much more technical and diverse skillset. This is due, in part, to increasingly complex governmental regulations such as PQRS and Meaningful Use. Practice managers often oversee the day-to-day operations of a practice while also helping physicians meet demanding regulatory requirements and compliance.
Dickey provides insight into the questions physicians should consider when hiring someone for the critical role of practice manager.
- What training and experience does the individual have? Although higher education is not a requirement, Dickey says a bachelor’s degree in health services or health administration, for example, can be helpful. More importantly, though, is the individual’s actual experience working in a medical setting. “If they have come up through the ranks and have a proven track record of being successful as a practice manager, well, in my opinion, that’s just as good [as education],” he says.
- What coding/billing experience does the individual have? Coding is becoming increasingly important in physician practices, not only for reimbursement but also for quality ratings, audits, and more. As the industry transitions to ICD-10, physicians must ensure that they hire a practice manager who has knowledge of coding or who isn’t afraid to learn more, says Dickey. Also look for someone who can read/interpret financial statements, negotiate favorable contracts with payers, run detailed financial and productivity-related reports, and work closely with the practice’s accountant, he adds.
- How does the individual relate to physicians? Can the individual communicate effectively and respectfully with physicians? In smaller practices, this question is especially important because the practice manager has much more direct contact with physicians and other staff members, says Dickey. A strong practice manager should be able to advocate for change within the practice, when necessary, and engage in productive dialogue with physicians at all times.
- How polished are the individual’s interpersonal skills? Interpersonal skills are one of the most important traits that a practice manager must possess. He or she must be able to communicate effectively with other staff members as well as patients. The individual should possess a customer service-oriented mindset and feel comfortable answering patients’ questions and making patients feel comfortable.
- Does the individual enjoy working on a team? Smaller practices should hire someone who doesn’t mind being what Dickey calls a “working manager”—that is, someone who is willing to pitch in and ‘roll up their sleeves,’ when necessary. When working in a smaller practice, the practice manager should be open to cross-training so that he or she understands each role within the practice and can help out in the event that other staff members are on vacation, out sick, or resign unexpectedly.
- What leadership experience does the individual possess? Is he or she able to garner respect from others? In what other leadership roles has the individual served? What did he or she enjoy most about those roles? What did he or she enjoy least? Leadership experience is important because it denotes an individual’s ability to effect change within the practice and lead important initiatives such as an EHR implementation or the transition to ICD-10. In addition to being a leader, Dickey says practices should look for someone who is ethical and perseverant. Candidates should be able to articulate why these adjectives pertain to them as well.
- How does the individual handle conflict? Conflict within a practice setting is bound to occur whether it’s disagreement about a particular vendor to choose, how to address negative patient feedback, how to handle a dispute between employees, or a variety of other reasons. An effective practice manager should be able to address conflict directly and in a professional and respectful manner.
- What’s the individual’s comfort level working with technology? Today’s practice managers often oversee the entire EHR implementation, including choosing a vendor and working with that vendor to deploy the application. Practice managers also often choose and implement practice management software. If the practice manger is comfortable with using technology him or herself, he or she can also have a positive influence on physicians, making them comfortable with using it as well, says Dickey. “A practice manager is an IT person to some extent. They have to become knowledgeable about what kind of system they need and which ones are best. It’s a substantial investment of money and time for the practice,” he adds. Technology also includes Web sites and social media. Practice managers should feel comfortable working with web designers to produce content for the practice’s website, and they should also have some baseline knowledge of how to use social media to promote the practice. As practices implement EHRs with patient portals, the practice manager should be able to answer questions and help patients navigate this technology as well.
- What other skills and experience can the individual bring to the table? At a minimum, practice managers should have strong organizational skills and experience working with Word and Excel. EHR experience is a plus. Some practices may also find it beneficial to hire someone who has experience working as part of an Accountable Care Organization if that’s an avenue that the practice is exploring.
Ultimately, physicians must assess whether the individual has the right mix of skills, knowledge, and personality. Don’t hesitate to wait for the right candidate, says Dickey. If the pool of candidates is limited, consider expanding the search beyond those who have experience working in a medical setting. For example, those who are business savvy or who may have been successful entrepreneurs in the past could become excellent practice managers with just the type of drive and confidence that a practice needs, he adds.