Consultants are engaged by hospitals and large healthcare organizations all the time. This is where the big consulting firms earn their daily bread. But physician practices – especially small to mid-size practices – display a curious aversion to consultants.
I attended a break-out session at a recent MGMA (Medical Group Management Association) conference in Ohio. The presentation was a case study on how a pediatric practice re-tooled their vaccine program, and a main feature of the case study was how they chose the right consultant to help guide them through the project and how beneficial the consultant had been.
A ‘seasoned’ practice administrator sitting next to me whispered vehemently “I would NEVER use a consultant at my practice!” At the break I asked her why she felt so strongly that using a consultant is a bad idea. She replied that, “There’s no way they can understand my practice the way I do, so I would be paying them to learn what I already know. I just don’t see how they can do anything better than I’m already doing it.”
After silently wondering what motivated her to attend the break-out session that had the word ‘consultant’ in the title, I asked her if she thought there was any value in understanding her practice from a perspective other than her own. “No…… No,” she said and walked away.
That encounter prompted me to think about all the ways a consultant can contribute value to a physician practice:
1. Help implement a special project
Keeping a practice running smoothly is difficult enough under normal circumstances. Taking on a big project, like EMR or overhauling self-pay collection protocols can stretch management resources to the breaking point. A good consultant can augment the management team and make sure all the bases are covered.
2. Help ensure return on investment
How many projects fail to meet projections? We’ve all heard the horror stories about failed EHR projects and the devastating effects on a practice. A good consultant (who has done this before) can help the practice set accurate expectations, avoid pitfalls, and achieve success.
3. take the heat / be the “bad guy”
Even a successful project can induce considerable pain. When it’s all over, much of the pain will “belong” to somebody. It’s better for the practice if the pain leaves with the consultant, instead of being on the Administrators’ shoulders.
4. get a fresh perspective
Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize trends, problems or opportunities from within the organization. A good consultant can help the practice see things from a new angle, leading to better business decisions and improved performance.
5. manage change
Even superb leaders can use some help in this area from time to time. An external “change agent” can facilitate communication and augment the Administrator’s skills.
6. control cost / save money
Avoiding cost overruns on a big project is one way a good consultant can save the practice money. Driving waste and error out of the system can make the difference between profitability and cost cuts that degrade quality.
7. import a skill-set
A true “Jack (or Jill) of all trades” is rare. Sooner or later a challenge will arise that will be resolved more effectively if the right outside resources are utilized. A good example is EMR implementation – if the practice doesn’t have a CIO, it would be wise to engage a consultant that can hold the vendor accountable and coordinate all the technical details.
8. solve a problem
Plan ‘A’ didn’t work. Plan ‘B’ isn’t going well either. Instead of spinning the practice’s wheels, a consultant can provide the needed traction.
9. fill a gap
What happens when the practice looses a valuable member of the management team? It can take months to find and train a replacement. Meanwhile, performance can erode. A highly skilled ‘temp’ can keep the team moving forward and even help get the replacement up to speed.
10. leverage time and effort
The practice leadership recognizes the need to embrace the latest technology, but everybody has their hands full just keeping up with day-to-day realities. A little added horse-power from a consultant can lighten the load, enabling the Administrator to make the leap to the next level of practice performance.
Another common cause for reluctance to call in a consultant is fear that the consultant will break things and/or make the Administrator look incompetent. The way to overcome that fear is by doing your homework – find a consultant that is experienced and has a good track record. Interview the consultant, check references, and determine if they are going to be an ally or an adversary. A good consultant’s job is to make you look better.