It’s been said many times, but your medical secretary can make or break your private practice. She (or he – but most probably she) will usually be the first point of contact for your patients or prospective patients – either on the phone, by E-mail or face-to-face – and the way she handles that contact could easily be the difference between whether the patient chooses to come to see you … or not. Your patient’s dealings with your medical secretary will also colour his or her perception of your private practice … and of you … without even meeting you and regardless of what a great doctor or surgeon you are!
It’s so important that you choose your medical secretary carefully, and I will be dealing with what you need to consider when recruiting for this important role another time.
Let’s get back to business. I’m going to assume that you’ve chosen your perfect match, that she will not be working remotely, that you will be employing her, and that she’s ready to start work for you. Now, how are you going to get the best out of her? How are you going to make her feel that this is the most amazing job she has ever had, you’re the nicest and best boss she has ever worked for, and that she’s never going to leave – if she’s really good, you’ve got to be able to hang onto her!
It’s really important that you don’t just leave your new medical secretary to her own devices and let her sink or swim. Try very hard to be there on her first morning to welcome her to your team. If you can’t be there yourself, nominate someone else who can do this for you and take her to her desk and show her where things are, but do see her yourself as quickly as you can – or ring her.
Make sure your medical secretary understands what you expect of her and how you like things done
Set aside some time when you can talk to her about this, face-to-face, within her first couple of days – preferably first thing on her first day. This should include how and when she can contact you, how you would like her to answer the phone, what you would like her to call you, how you want her to deal with your patients, how you would like her to respond to E-mails, where and when you see your patients, how long you allocate to new and old patient consultations and what your fees are, useful telephone numbers and E-mail addresses and your GDPR policies. If she will be typing your letters, make sure she knows how you like them to be set out. It’s also useful to have a list of your regular medical terminology or terms. If you’re a surgeon, she will need to know what are your most common procedures and how long do you need in theatre to do these, whether she needs to order in any special equipment for you and what that is, how long will the patient expect to be in hospital, what are the procedure codes, who are your preferred anaesthetists, and in what order should she approach them.
You should really have a Practice Manual which she can refer to and which should give her all of the information she needs to do her job. If you don’t have a Practice Manual, then I would strongly urge you to make one! This can be kept digitally and can be added to as new things arise. Please get in touch if you need help with writing a Practice Manual.
Make sure she understands what it is that you do and that she can explain it to others
Your medical secretary will be the front line for enquiries to your practice from potential patients and existing patients, other healthcare professionals or members of the public. It’s vital that your secretary has the knowledge she needs so that she can represent you to others. She will need to know whether you perform a particular procedure, how long it takes you to do it, when the patient can expect to resume driving, sport, work etc, how much it costs, how quickly the patient can see you, how soon the patient can have their procedure. We’ve all spoken to companies where we have asked about a particular service and, if the person on the other end of the phone or E-mail doesn’t seem to know their stuff or has a poor telephone manner, we’ve become irritated and have moved on. The same is true for your practice. Your medical secretary must understand what you do and be able to answer questions from patients in a way that is competent and professional. If she doesn’t, you will lose work and the reputation of your practice will suffer.
Ensure that she has decent equipment so that she can do her job
If you’re responsible for providing your medical secretary’s computer, printer, wi-fi connection and software, make sure it’s of good (preferably high!) quality and that everything works. She needs proper tools to be able to do her job and to do a good job for you. Unreliable equipment and/or computer systems can be a huge source of stress and frustration for her. If she needs some training in order to be able to use your practice management systems, then ensure she gets this within her first few days.
Make sure she feels her contribution is recognised and appreciated
If you feel she is doing a good job, then tell her! If your patients pass comment to you about her, feed that back to her. A very occasional token of your appreciation, which need not be expensive and need not be frequent, would also make her feel valued. A simple but heartfelt spoken thank you goes a very long way!
Create a working environment where your medical secretary feels that she can offer suggestions or make constructive comments about your Practice and how things are done. She will have skills and expertise which you don’t, and will probably be able to offer you ideas about how some things could be done differently or more efficiently or new initiatives which could be adopted by your Practice. She could also be a useful sounding board for ideas which you have. It’s important that your medical secretary feels that she can make suggestions and that those suggestions will be heard. It will also make her feel an important part of your team. If she feels valued and involved, she will be more inclined to go the extra mile for you and to remain loyal to your Practice.
A business not a job
It’s important that your medical secretary recognises and understands that your private practice is a business and that it needs to be run efficiently and profitably. Involve her in your Practice’s performance reviews so that she understands how well (or otherwise) you are doing. She may be able to make suggestions about how doing things slightly differently may save you money or bring in greater revenue.
You will get so much more out of your medical secretary if she isn’t intimidated by you!
Reward her for her hard work
Pay her a decent wage. Money isn’t everything and some statistics show that for some people things such as job satisfaction rate higher than monetary reward. However, obviously what you earn is important and you should recognise your secretary’s skills, experience and contribution to the success of your Practice by giving her a realistic salary and benefits. It would also be useful to have a structure in place for appraisals, personal development and training and annual salary increases. If in doubt, look at what the NHS pay scale for medical secretaries who are typically pegged at Band 3 or Band 4. It would be worth trying to find out how much your local private hospitals pay their medical secretarial staff, although you may struggle to find out because many of the private hospitals are often very coy about this, hiding behind the words “we pay a competitive salary” when conducting their own recruitment campaigns. Alternatively, ask your colleagues what they are paying their private practice staff.
Avoid texting, E-mailing or calling your secretary in the evening or at weekends unless it is critical. If you do need to encroach upon her personal time, stress that this really was unavoidable and thank her for responding.
If you find the right person to be your medical secretary and you can get the best out of her, she will be your right hand; your advocate, your helper, your gatekeeper and an ambassador for you and for your practice. If she knows what you need from her and how you like things to be done, she will be able to make administrative and logistical decisions on your behalf, and you must be able to trust her to do this in the way you would like. She must be able to make your day run more smoothly and her input will be designed to leave you free to focus on what you do best – seeing and treating your patients.
Sue Wilcox is an AMSPAR qualified medical secretary. She has worked as a medical secretary in the NHS and private sectors for more than 40 years. She is the Director of The Medical Secretariat Limited which provides medical secretarial and administrative services to consultants in private practice. You can contact Sue by phone on 0121-242 3299 or 07954 433201 or via E-mail at email@example.com.