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Inspired Team Building for Medical Offices

Team building via a tug of war | Vanguard Communications | Denver, CO


Stop the deterioration in healthcare employee morale with staff team building

Just imagine it is Monday morning, and there’s a message left with the answering service that the receptionist and one of your medical assistants won’t be coming to work. Do you call a temp organization, which will send you someone who has never worked in a medical office and is unfamiliar with the scheduling process? Do you try to make do with your existing staff and wreak havoc with your schedule? Do you call patients to reschedule and only see those deemed necessary and urgent?

None of these options is attractive and will likely to cause stress on the existing staff and problems with patient care. The best answer is to have anticipated this situation of absent employees with a staff cross-trained so that employees can work in other positions. This allows the full schedule of patients to be seen without delays or disruptions so patients are unaware of the staff shortage. 

New reality of medical staff shortages from The Great Resignation

While all practices, especially small ones, benefit from cross-training, the underlying issue is the overall growth in medical staff shortages. It’s due in large part to The Great Resignation spawned by the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortages and the extra work burden may lead to burnout, personal illness and healthcare professionals leaving the field – and your practice.

Related reading: The Great Resignation in healthcare, part 1

The fallout deteriorates the morale of the employees who stay, making them more likely to leave. You don’t want either, of course.

You need your employees to be – and see themselves as – part of a cohesive team. Teams stick together, whereas individual players tend to leave. Teams don’t form because they work in the same medical office: they have to be built. By you.

Team building is the art of turning diverse individual employees into a team of people who work together to meet their shared objective, which in a medical practice is excellent patient care. The key to team building is to foster bonds of respect between individuals, in spite of their differences, to accomplish the team’s goals.

The glue of a team is that its members have expectations of each other. A cohesive team can sail through staff shortages and other difficult issues. When employees know they are part of a team, employee morale is rarely a problem.

The term “team” is hugely popular in business and medicine these days. Unfortunately, just saying you are a team does not make it true. In fact, just talking the talk can turn employees off. Following are elements I have used to build a true team in my medical practice.

Effective staff meetings for team building

The three types of staff meetings.

  • Formal or standard meetings, which are often held monthly.
  • Less formal meetings with no agenda can be held during lunch and are open discussions about the practice (may be sponsored by a vendor that calls on the practice).
  • Very informal meeting for the staff to share issues affecting patient care or nonmedical and nonclinical decisions.

Staff meetings are held more often if there are problems or if any new programs are being introduced into the practice. When organizing staff meetings, keep the following points in mind:

  1. Avoid meetings on Monday and Friday.
  2. Meet in the morning when everyone is rested.
  3. Limit the meeting to 30-40 minutes.
  4. Avoid interruptions: turn off cell phones and have the answering service pick up office calls.
  5. Serve refreshments.

Related reading: Beating the Meeting Defeaters

Starting a staff meeting on a positive note

In most healthcare practices, there are many positive events and circumstances that the staff will experience. Sharing those positive comments and compliments with all the staff is important. At the beginning of a staff meeting, ask that everyone relate compliments received from patients or some positive incident that has happened since the last meeting. Such incidents might include successfully dealing with a difficult patient, new uniforms or an employee receiving an award.

I suggest starting the meeting with these comments, which creates a positive atmosphere and avoids the meeting becoming a gripe session.

Another suggestion is to ask everyone to contribute one idea that will help improve the practice. Reward implemented ideas either verbally or monetarily, especially if the idea saves costs. Remember to avoid criticizing any of the staff’s suggestions. If you do, you will stifle future creativity. Remember to remain open to these suggestions and avoid defensive commentary. It is also important to remind staff members not to bring up any person-specific complaints in a forum such as this and provide them with details on the appropriate way to do so.

Creating a positive atmosphere is a prerequisite for creativity. If your team members aren’t happy, engaged and feeling good about their work, your practice won’t have the best results caring for patients. This also impacts patient satisfaction as well as your online reputation.

Role-playing stimulates healthcare professionals’ involvement

Have you thought about what your patients feel and experience when interacting with your practice? What is it like when you have difficulty lifting your hand above your head? How does it feel when you’re recovering from a heart attack? Looking through the lens of a patient can be very helpful in identifying the provider-patient encounter from the patient’s point of view.

Role-playing is another technique for enhancing morale within the practice. For example, one staff member can assume the role of an angry patient calling to complain about a bill, and another staff member can attempt to calm the patient and resolve the problem. The rest of the staff can critique the dialogue.

Senior citizen role-playing

Another example is a senior citizen simulation for your younger staff members to understand the limitations and problems older patients have navigating a medical practice.

A middle-aged team member is converted into a senior citizen by, 1) making her hard of hearing by placing a cotton ball in each ear, 2) impairing her vision by giving her glasses that distort the reading material, 3) making her arthritic by having her wear gloves and immobilizing one leg with a splint.

Before the staff meeting, this role-playing senior citizen enters the office, signs in at the reception desk, reads some of our patient education material, and sits in one of the chairs in the reception area.

The team member then changes back to herself and we start the staff meeting. She explains that she had trouble reading materials in our reception area and had difficulty getting into and out of the chairs in the reception area. She also had problems using the doorknobs to open doors in the restroom and the exam room. Finally, she had trouble hearing the receptionist in the office.

What did we learn? We learned that the font size on our print material in the reception area was too small. We discovered that most of the chairs in our reception area and the exam rooms were not senior-friendly. We learned that one of the staff members may need to help seniors with their paperwork because of difficulty with fine motor skills like writing. We also added door handles to facilitate seniors’ ability to open doors.

But, most of all, we increased the sensitivity of the entire staff to the unique concerns of the elderly and how we might provide better care for them.

Try this team building exercise

The following team-building exercise can improve your team’s time management and problem solving skills.

Teams each have a few employees and have a list of tasks to do in 10 minutes. These can range from the easy to the more difficult: sing a song together, each member makes a paper airplane and the team chooses the winning design, or make a list of what the team expects to get out of the exercise.

Assign each task a point value based on its difficulty. Add each team’s score and declare a winning team, which might receive a modest gift or a trophy displayed in the office.

After the winner is chosen, discuss the learning experience:

  • How did teams decide what tasks they wanted to do?
  • Were they able to use time wisely and batch some of the tasks?
  • Did they have a brief meeting to assign tasks or ask volunteers to complete them?
  • Did any of the tasks require the employee to leave his or her comfort zone? How did that feel?
  • Were the team members able to allocate the tasks to those who had the skills to complete the task?

Bottom line: There is a strong correlation between employee well-being, productivity and performance. Employees report that team-building exercises boost morale, increase connectivity\communication among employees, enhance productivity and creativity, as well as ultimately improving patient satisfaction and the practice’s online reputation. Besides, it’s fun and inexpensive, and we all know that healthcare needs an injection of fun. Happy workers tend to go that extra mile for their patients.

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