She is the lifeline of today’s aesthetic surgery practice
One of the most critical roles in an aesthetic surgery practice is your go-to person—also known as the patient coordinator or cosmetic coordinator—who manages the consultation process and the surgical patients. A good patient coordinator can make or break a plastic surgery practice. However, with the relatively low pay scale in most medical offices, the long hours, and the lack of incentives or room for advancement, it is often difficult to attract the best candidates for this position.
Highly skilled patient coordinators generally stay with one surgeon for many years if they make a good match. Fostering a continuity of care is comforting to repeat patients, and knowing that the surgeon has a loyal staff is equally reassuring to new patients. Frequent turnover, however, signals to patients that the office is disorganized and inefficient, and that the surgeon is hard to work for.
A savvy patient coordinator is worth her weight in gold. In fact, the return on investment can far exceed that of the purchase of a piece of capital equipment or an expensive medical device. If you are fortunate enough to have a stellar patient coordinator on your staff, hang onto her, because this treasure is becoming increasingly hard to find. Don’t risk losing a trusted senior staff member to another surgeon if you can avoid it.
As William P. Adams, Jr, MD, an associate clinical professor of plastic surgery at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and a private practitioner, says, “The patient coordinator is the cornerstone of any practice. She is the first voice a potential patient hears, the initial bond of your practice to the patient, and the person patients turn to when questions arise. A great coordinator is an invaluable asset to a successful practice.”
American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery President James Stuzin, who has a private practice in Miami, says, “The role of the patient coordinator in the plastic surgeon’s practice cannot be underestimated. She can serve as a vital link and liaison between the surgeon and the patient. Patients often perceive the patient coordinator as being more approachable than the surgeon. Even after their consultation visit with you, patients will often tell the coordinator information that provides the surgeon added insight into their personality.”
A good patient coordinator is a natural-born multitasker. The typical job description may include: explaining procedures, answering questions, offering guidance, quoting fees, and scheduling surgery dates. It may also include taking patients’ histories and performing physicals, reviewing preoperative and postoperative instructions, collecting fees, and interfacing with patients’ families. It should ideally include a high degree of hand-holding and personalized attention to the details of the entire patient experience in your practice.
In a busy aesthetic surgery practice, it is common to enlist the patient coordinator to perform a preliminary consultation with new patients before they see the surgeon. This serves the dual purpose of preparing the patient for what to expect during the consultation, and saving valuable surgeon-to-patient face time. Many surgeons also use their patient coordinators to manage their internal and external marketing programs and community-outreach efforts.
It is always preferable to have a dedicated person assigned to this critical role. The patient coordinator who is too encumbered with a multitude of responsibilities cannot dedicate the time and effort it takes to appropriately manage potential patients. If she feels overburdened and pulled in too many directions to give patients the individual attention they expect, her effectiveness will be limited.
It is virtually impossible to act as a true patient coordinator when one is answering the phone and scheduling appointments while explaining the complexities of a facelift procedure. Patients will also find these interruptions to be rude and inconsiderate of their time.
To do the job to the best of her ability, it is also important that the patient coordinator has a proper office or private area in which to counsel patients. Whenever possible, an office with a door that can be closed to preserve the patient’s privacy is ideal. This atmosphere fosters an aura of intimacy between the patient coordinator and the patient. In this era of medical-privacy regulations, an office should really be considered mandatory.
Good patient coordinators should be incentivized in a manner that reflects the culture of your practice, and without making it seem that they are commissioned salespeople. Compensation packages may be based on performance, patient satisfaction, and revenue stream. It has become commonplace for patient coordinators to receive a quarterly or semiannual bonus based on how well the practice is doing.
A common error that surgeons often make is to employ a patient coordinator without empowering her to do the job she was hired to do. You will undermine her authority if patients sense that they can bypass her to get to you directly to negotiate fees and discuss scheduling issues.
Hiring a Great Coordinator
The concept of a patient coordinator is no longer specific to the practice of plastic and reconstructive surgery. Dermatologists, cosmetic dentists, refractive surgeons, and other specialists are increasingly embracing the idea of having someone on staff to fill this important niche.
It is also not limited to private practice; university and hospital settings are becoming more aggressive about capturing a greater share of the aesthetic market. Therefore, the sooner you can hire a dedicated person in this position, the faster you can grow your aesthetic practice.
For young surgeons just starting out in practice, it may be acceptable to have an office manager or nurse handle these responsibilities during the first few years. But eventually, a necessary step for growing your practice is to hire someone whose main function is to educate your patients, promote your skills, and schedule procedures.
If you are a more established surgeon, the best patient coordinator may already be on your staff. She may be your administrator, receptionist, medical assistant, nurse, or aesthetician. She may have a surgical, medical, or dental background—or no medical experience whatsoever.
In today’s competitive market, the rules have changed. In fact, many busy surgeons are looking outside the medical field to identify good candidates for this key position. They are seeking patient coordinators who have backgrounds in customer service and know how to be an advocate for patients and make them feel welcome.
One noteworthy strategy that has gained attention from plastic surgeons in many markets is to recruit candidates from the hospitality or retail industry. Look for people who are accustomed to working with customers or clients on a one-on-one basis.
For example, a personal shopper who has worked for a high-end department store may have many of the attributes necessary to be an excellent patient coordinator. The concierge at a luxury boutique hotel may also bring sophistication and a well-established service mentality to your practice.
What to Look For
Ideally, a patient-coordinator candidate should be a well-spoken, computer literate college graduate. She should also possess a professional demeanor and an outgoing personality.
The image of key staff members in an aesthetic surgery practice is always a factor. She should be nonthreatening to both women and men, and mature enough to make menopausal women feel at ease disclosing their concerns about the aging process.
She should also be appropriately dressed in businesslike attire, which can vary depending on the practice’s geographical area. If she does not dress professionally, she will not be taken seriously by patients and her authority will be questioned.
In some offices, the patient coordinator will wear a crisp lab coat with the name of the practice embroidered over the breast pocket. In other cases, a patient coordinator may be offered a clothing and grooming allowance as part of, or in addition to, her compensation so she can dress for success.
Along with her intelligence, skills, and poise, she will be expected to put in long hours, get along well with the rest of the staff, and keep the surgery schedule full and the patient flow efficient.
In addition to her administrative skills, an effective patient coordinator also needs to be attuned to the nuances of conversation. A soft-sell approach is usually preferable to an overly aggressive demeanor, which can turn many patients off. She should be adept at establishing a bond with patients during the consultation that will enable her to guide them through the surgical process and beyond.
Communication skills are of paramount importance. Above all, a patient coordinator should be able to handle the most difficult and demanding patients with a smile and never lose her cool. You need a real people person to assume this role. You can’t train people to be nice; you have to hire nice people from the start.
Previous aesthetic surgery experience could be a positive attribute, but it could also be a negative one if she has worked for several other surgeons in your community and has picked up bad habits.
Delivering Patient-Focused Care
According to Debbie Doyle, practice administrator for Nashville Plastic Surgery in Nashville, Tenn, “Cosmetic surgery patients want to feel that they are in good hands, and in a safe and nurturing environment. The staff is a reflection of the surgeons.”
The patient coordinator must be able to connect with patients on an intensely personal level to instill trust and confidence, and to “sell” the surgeon. She can promote his credentials, training, and expertise with patients much better than the surgeon can. She can also present the practice’s surgical results in the best possible light.
A weak or ineffective patient coordinator may be subconsciously sabotaging your practice by her apathy toward your patients. Patients today are very sophisticated and can pick up on the signs.
Therefore, when evaluating your patient coordinator’s effectiveness, ask yourself the following questions:
Does she keep patients waiting too long?
Is she detail-oriented and good at follow-up?
Does she return patients’ calls in a timely fashion?
Is she a good listener?
Does she communicate with patients effectively?
Are patients coming to you with questions that should be directed to your coordinator?
Does she rush new patients?
Does she encourage patients to ask questions?
Is she knowledgeable enough to address patients’ concerns?
Does she have a warm and nurturing demeanor?
Does she get too friendly or personal with patients?
Is she too pushy or aggressive?
“Patient coordinators must make people feel like their concerns are important, and the best way to do that is to genuinely believe that their concerns are important,” says Charles H. Thorne, MD, an associate professor of plastic surgery at New York University School of Medicine and a private practitioner in New York City.
“It also helps to have intuition. My patient coordinator knows instinctively how to interact with different people. Not everyone responds in the same way, and therefore, everyone should be treated as an individual,”
There is no universal blueprint for managing the patient relationship within your practice. However, it is imperative that you address this key role as early as possible in order to grow a successful cosmetic practice. Ultimately, how comfortable prospective patients feel in your practice factors into their decision to have surgery with you or with someone else.
Wendy Lewis is a contributor to Plastic Surgery Products and the author of nine books, including America’s Cosmetic Doctors (Castle Connolly). She is also editorial director for www.MDPublish.com , a medical publishing group. She can be reached at [email protected]
Association of Plastic Surgical Assistants. Available at: www.plasticassistants.info Accessed June 1, 2006.
Plastic Surgery Administrative Association. Available at: www.plasticadmin.org Accessed June 1, 2006.