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Taking Time Off

When you spend all of your time looking after the health of others, it can sometimes be difficult to take time to look after yourself. There always seems to be one more patient to help, one more report to write, one more bit of paperwork to file before you can step out of the office and into home life.

In this, health professionals are not alone. A recent report by Simply Business revealed that 20% of the UK’s small business owners say they can’t afford to take a single day off work this summer whilst a further 30% plan to holiday near home to keep an eye on their business.

In fact, this problem of work-life balance is seen in many countries. A recent report by German researchers revealed that working outside of core hours on tasks such as checking emails can limit the ability to feel detached from work, leading to higher levels of the stress hormone allied to a feeling of increased tiredness.

Whether working as a sole trader or in a small business it can sometimes be hard to see where you can turn to reduce the workload. The last thing you want to do is to reduce your client base as that will reduce income so instead it is tempting to save up all those administrative tasks for the evenings and weekends. Of course, there is the option of taking on a part-time member of staff to help with the workload, but this can be a tricky balancing act.

Obviously, if you have a regular volume of extra administrative tasks to complete then a new member of staff may well be the answer. However, when the workload is irregular then you may not be able to justify adding to your team on a permanent basis and temporary members of staff will always be around to answer the telephone when it is ringing and you are with a patient.

But there is another way. Virtual assistant services can help to reduce the workload by taking on tasks such as telephone answering, appointment booking and records and diary management. Better still, by using a virtual assistant service you gain the flexibility which you require. For example, you can switch telephones over to the virtual service when you are with clients or on holiday, switching them back when you are free to answer calls.

Tasks such as phone answering and appointment booking can easily intrude on daily business life and create a pressure point which can add to stress levels. Not having to answer the telephone when you are treating patients or meeting with clients, being able to access client notes online rather than spending time in preparing for meetings, even having someone to screen out unwanted sales calls can all make a difference to the working day and to peace of mind.

Of course, at the end of the day virtual assistant services can only go so far in helping to improve the work-life balance. The bottom line is that as a business owner you owe it to yourself, to your family and to your clients to take the time off that you need to refresh the mental and physical batteries. If you don’t, your work will suffer and that helps no-one.

Everything in moderation

Saturated fats, salt, alcohol, exercise, diet; the list of potential causes and prevention methods for cancer, heart problems and other life-threatening conditions changes on a daily basis. For every report which boldly proclaims that x is bad for you, another is sure to follow with a counter argument.

Even the idea of healthy exercise is under threat as a recent report reveals that working out at the gym may not help us to lose weight. With all of this contradictory advice it’s hardly surprising that some choose to ignore it completely whilst others present themselves at the osteopath or chiropractor with injuries from having jumped from one fad into another.

Calmer minds accept that the solution is to adopt the mantra ‘everything in moderation.’ Ignoring the fads and balancing a healthy diet with moderate exercise is arguably the best advice which anyone can have. Similarly, when it comes to a busy lifestyle, rather than flying from one extreme solution to another, the best advice is to take a good look at the schedule and find ways to reduce the overall workload.

When we encounter overload in our daily lives it is tempting to cut out some elements entirely. For example, a busy physiotherapy practice may take the decision to stop taking on new patients. Of course the danger in this is that we lurch from one crisis to another, cresting more problems with every ‘solution’ until we fall into some kind of stasis: just about managing but unable to grow or enjoy our work.

But one of the benefits of the internet age is that there are other options available which can take the strain without needing to resort to drastic measures.  Services such as diary management, phone answering and even electronic filing of patient records can all be handled by a virtual assistant service. And with today’s telephony systems enabling callers to be pre-announced, a virtual assistant service can answer calls in the name of the health practice even if they are looking after a number of practices at the same time.

Add in an on-line booking service allied to secure card processing and at a stroke the day to day administration workload of a busy health practice can be switched from overload to manageable. Not only that, by taking card details at the time of booking, clients are far more likely to attend appointments; helping to maximise treatment times and ensuring that the physiotherapist or other health practitioner is spending their time productively rather than chasing no-shows.

With administration time cut, the health practitioner is freer to concentrate on what they do best; helping those who are in need of some form of therapeutic intervention. Best of all, the virtual assistant service is flexible and can be switched on and off as required. So if ‘pinch points’ only occur at certain times of the day, week or month, the virtual assistant can step in then, leaving practices free to self-manage at other times.

Everything in moderation? With a virtual receptionist service on standby, health practices can smooth out some of life’s pressure points and that can only be good for the health practitioners and for their patients.

The power of sport

It may be the top sportsmen and women who hit the headlines but the power of sport to engage and enthuse at all levels never ceases to amaze.  From rumbustious back street kick-abouts to photos in the Guardian recently of Brazilian children practicing overhead kicks on a flooded pitch; sport can be a unifying and defining activity.

One thing is certain, with Wimbledon and the World Cup around the corner, our streets and parks will soon be filled with enthusiastic sports players all dreaming that one day they will be able to emulate Murray or Messi, Nadal or Neymar.  But, played at any level, sport can come at a price.

That price is the chance of injury.  You may be a top flight sportsperson, used to training every day and carefully balancing nutrients to optimise body health and fitness.  You may be a weekend player, turning out for the local team before heading off for a drink; or you may be an occasional player, turning out with short bursts of enthusiasm before retreating to more sedentary forms of support.  Whatever level you play at, the odds are that injury will hit at some stage.  And when injury hits, the quicker it is treated the better.

For health professionals such as physiotherapists, chiropractors, sports injury practitioners and osteopaths, the challenge is to be on hand to treat regular clients, whilst at the same time squeezing in more immediate cases.  No-one wants to leave diary slots vacant but equally no-one wants to turn down prospective patients.  The answer is to take every opportunity to ensure that prospective clients can make and attend appointments.

Online booking will capture some clients but others may prefer to speak to a person at the end of a phone.  Switching phones to a virtual assistant will help to ensure that when the phone rings, someone will answer without the need to interrupt ongoing treatments to answer the phone. In fact, using a virtual assistant service has multiple benefits including improving the image of the health practice, establishing a dialogue with clients and freeing up treatment time which would otherwise be spent in answering or returning telephone calls.

Once the appointment has been made it is important both for the patient and the health practice to ensure that treatment starts in the timescale agreed. No-shows not only delay the start of important treatments, they leave empty gaps in health practitioners’ diaries which could have been filled by other patients.

Encouraging clients to keep the appointments which they have made is a two-fold process.  Appointment reminders sent out via SMS text or e-mail have been shown both in the NHS and private practice to reduce the number of no-shows.  Similarly, confirming bookings with a pre-authorised debit or credit card sum also serves to improve attendance rates, generally because this means that the health practice can take a non-attendance fee in accordance with advertised practice.

World cups, tournaments, championships; the sporting calendar rolls ever onwards and with every passing phase brings a new crop of injuries.  Making sure that they are on hand to provide prompt treatment will earn health professionals their own niche in the sporting hall of fame.

A ‘Wellcome’ cure

The Wellcome Library has opened up its archives of historical memorabilia for general use.  According to the library the collection encompasses ‘manuscripts, paintings, etchings, early photography and advertisements’ and amounts to some 100,000 images.

Releasing the images under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence means that they can be used free of charge by anyone for personal or commercial purposes, provided that the image is accompanied by an acknowledgement as to source.  So whether you are treating your patients for gout or for sprained limbs, for persistent pain or for an aching tooth there may well be a suitable image which you can use to amuse or to inform your patients.

In opening up the archive the Head of the Wellcome Library, Simon Chaplin, said “Together the collection amounts to a dizzying visual record of centuries of human culture, and our attempts to understand our bodies, minds and health through art and observation. As a strong supporter of open access, we want to make sure these images can be used and enjoyed by anyone without restriction.”  The earliest image in the collection is a fragment of an Egyptian herbal, inscribed on papyrus.  From that early beginning the collection encompasses medieval manuscripts, Victorian cartoons and some early photographs exploring the movement of the human body.

Providing effective patient treatments can be challenging at times and those working in the health profession know that keeping the tone light and adding touches of humour can help to alleviate patient anxiety.  Access to an archive such as this can help to make the difference; although whether some of the images such as the Gilray cartoons portraying gout sufferers drinking port will teach us anything is a matter for debate.

But to be truly effective light heartedness needs to be tempered with professionalism and this is not always easy to achieve in a busy health practice.  Answering the phone, finding or filing patient notes, sending out invoices and other administration tasks can all disrupt patient treatments.  Outsourcing some of this work to a virtual assistant service can help to smooth over the working day and maximise time taken on treating patients.  Virtual Assistant services can be taken on a permanent or ‘as required’ basis.  This means that health practitioners can concentrate on what they do best, treating and reassuring patients, whilst being reassured themselves that behind the scenes day to day administration tasks such as phone answering, appointment reminders and invoicing are not being neglected.

Chinese Whispers

A GP who is at the forefront of patient engagement and empowerment has revealed that 99% of his communications with physiotherapists are still carried out on paper.  According to the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, Dr Amir Hannan said ‘I don’t think we use email as productively as we might or technology in general.’

With letters being used as the prime communication method, it can sometimes be weeks before the results of patient treatments are conveyed to the general practitioner, resulting in delays in considering appropriate follow up treatment.  This affects the perception and actuality of patient care and can in some cases lead to a worsening of the patient’s condition.

In fact, Dr Amir highlighted the way in which delays in receipt of letters can result in the patient having to brief the doctor on the methods and results of treatments.  Whilst this does play into the hands of those who advocate patients taking responsibility for their care, it also means that treatments and findings can be filtered with a ‘Chinese whisper’ effect resulting in distortions.

Dr Hannan’s comments were echoed by NHS England’s director of systems, strategy and technology, Beverley Bryant, who confessed herself to be amazed “how much paper flies around our hospitals”.  As we have previously reported, one solution to this paper mountain is to adopt smarter practices which benefit from the use of current technology.  The health care authorities are working towards this end but there are options available now for those who need to find a way to communicate more effectively.

One of the main barriers to swift communication is the simple lack of time available to those who want to maximise patient treatment time.  Every time papers are filed, every time the phone is answered, every time an invoice is sent out is time which takes health practitioners away from their core task.  Simply by using the services of a virtual assistant to take control of telephone answering, diary management, electronic records and invoicing enables practitioners to free up valuable time.

Working smarter, not harder may be a mantra which is parroted around the business-speak airwaves on a regular basis but it does carry an element of truth.  Health practitioners took up the call to treat and improve the lives of others.  By concentrating on that calling and leaving the day to day admin to others, everyone benefits.

Learning the lessons of 111

NHS England has reported that the 111 telephone service has successfully coped with the May Bank Holiday weekend without major problems.  With providers taking on more call handlers in the run up to the weekend the early signs are that the 111 service responded to the vast majority of the 100,000 callers over the weekend.

However, chief nursing officer Jane Cummings acknowledged that improvements were still required before all forty-six 111 services were up and running as expected.  Run by a mix of providers including private firms and ambulance services, the 111 service has seen some teething problems.  This has resulted in some services being suspended or receiving special help.

Last week NHS England agreed to commission an external review to look at the problems which have beset the introduction of the 111 telephone service; both as a guide to actions required to bring the service up to full strength and as a learning point for future projects.  Whilst some areas of the country seem to have experienced a fairly smooth transition, others have been beset with problems including calls not being answered and major delays experienced by those waiting for calls back from medical specialists.

Designed to serve the needs of those who are too ill to be able to wait until they can see their doctor within hours but are uncertain if they should call an ambulance the 111 service is designed to be able to direct callers to the most appropriate service for their needs including GP out of hours, A&E or calling an ambulance if required.  This means that the service may receive a wide variety of calls from those who are concerned about their own, or a loved one’s, health and in those circumstances any delay in responding can lead to distress and anxiety.

In fact it’s not just the 111 service which can suffer from delayed call answering.  Any call which goes unanswered can potentially lead to frustration on the part of the caller, whether the call is to a health practitioner or not.  For those health practitioners who work closely with patients this can cause a dilemma.  If the answer a call they may be interrupting an existing treatment but if they ignore the call they risk losing a potential patient or their goodwill.

The solution is to appoint a virtual assistant service which will respond to callers, book appointments, manage diaries and take messages.   Appointing a virtual assistant service which specialises in health matters will also pay dividends as the call answerers will be able to talk knowledgeably to patients about their treatments with empathy and attention to detail and will better understand when messages should be marked as urgent.  We will be keeping an eye on the NHS England review as well as the progress of the 111 service and will report on any findings which may be of interest to our health practitioner clients.

Guarding your back

In celebration of Chiropractic Awareness Week 2013 the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has been encouraging parents to take care of their backs.  According to the BCA, 79% of people have experienced back or neck pain at some point in their lives with 61% of those being parents.

More worrying for the parent/child relationship, 55% of parents reported that their back or neck pain prevented them from lifting or carrying their child.  To help parents to prevent or minimise the effects of back pain the BCA has published some handy advice sheets on their website.  The guides cover areas such as posture, stretching exercises, pregnancy, outdoor and indoor activities and play.

As you’d expect the BCA was not alone in promoting the Chiropractic Awareness Week which started on 15th April.  Chiropractors across the UK played their part in promoting the ways in which chiropractic treatments could help to treat or prevent back pain.  With NHS commissioning for chiropractic treatments being limited, the majority of chiropractic patients tend to pay privately.  This puts an added time pressure on chiropractors who not only have to provide the treatments but also manage their own administration as they care for multiple patients.

Making use of an efficient virtual service can take a lot of the pressure out of the administration burden and enable chiropractors to maximise their time with patients.  Services such as telephone answering and diary management help the practice to present a professional image whilst minimising the time spent on administration or having to interrupt treatments to answer the phone. But it is the additional services offered by businesses such as Clinic Appointments which can also make a major difference to time management.  SMS appointment reminders have been shown to boost patient attendance whilst digitising patient notes eliminates the time spent in searching through filing cabinets as the patient sits in the waiting room.

One of the BCA leaflets provides handy hints on protecting our backs when on the computer.  For busy chiropractors and other health professionals we’d like to add one more item to the list and that is to reduce the time spent sitting down on the phone or computer and let our virtual assistants take the strain.

Innovation Grant for British School of Osteopathy

When finances and funding sit so firmly at the heart of the NHS it can sometimes seem as though every attempt to instil a culture of care is beset by financial restrictions.  Not that care and compassion should be affected by finances but it can be hard to provide a quality service when time and energy is spent in scratching around for cash.

It is therefore good to be able to report on the British School of Osteopathy which has recently been awarded a significant innovation grant.  Totalling just over £250,000 spread over a three year period the grant will enable the BSO to develop a new service called OsteoMAP.

According to the BSO website, “OsteoMAP is designed to support people with long-term musculoskeletal pain, which may be alleviated but is unlikely to be completely resolved by manual therapy alone.”  The programme will initially be developed at the BSO’s clinical centre and then rolled out via training courses to students and qualified osteopaths across the UK.

In recognising and developing multi-layered treatments which address the physical and psychological effects of certain conditions this programme should both reduce the burden on hospital services and help the health services to deliver the Government’s aim of a more patient focused treatment regime.

One of the side-effects of this programme is that community osteopaths are likely to become more involved in the treatment of long term conditions and this could add to the patient mix.  Those osteopaths who have switched to a more streamlined appointment, diary management and patient notes system may be in the best position to take advantage of this increased treatment requirement.

In effect, the more time which is freed up from administration the better.  With phone calls answered by a virtual receptionist the osteopath or other health professional can concentrate on providing distraction-free quality care to their patients.  And when it comes to a treatment such as osteopathy or physiotherapy, the less distraction the better.  Interrupted treatments can not only be less effective, the very fact of an interruption can cause anxiety in patients leading to muscle tension.

Grants such as that announced by the British School of Osteopathy can only help to drive forward quality care in our health service.  Targeted, patient-focused and aimed at providing long term therapies for lifelong conditions; treatment regimes such as OsteoMAP will reduce the day to day burden on hospitals and enable people to live a better quality of life.

A culture of compassion

Following a number of high profile reports into the standards of care within the NHS the Prime Minister has announced a package of measures which are aimed at raising the standard of care provided by health services.  Alongside measures such as improved training for dementia carers and a defined career pathway for care assistants comes a vision for strengthening district nursing.

The attention grabbing element of this new package is the introduction of a “friends and family” test which will encourage patients to report back on hospitals.  Designed to be in place from April 2013 the test will then be gradually rolled out over the rest of the health service.

The measures have been broadly welcomed by health bodies with the NHS Confederation chief executive, Mike Farrar, saying that “we have got to ensure that a culture of compassion is running through the veins of every place that provides care, no ifs, no buts and no exceptions.”  But whilst greater training and a renewed emphasis on care and compassion is a major step forward, there still remains the twin challenge of providing patient care whilst coping with the day to day paper work and interruptions.

A survey of social care workers in 2012 revealed that just 15% of time was spent in face to face meetings with clients with the rest of the time taken up with paperwork, phone calls, travelling and other meetings.  If that figure were to be reflected across the health sector then there is precious little time available for patient care.

This time challenge is one which is not simply confined to those working in the NHS, but is also a problem for those providing other health services such as physiotherapy and osteopathy.  For them, every minute spent on paperwork and answering calls is a non-earning minute which is spent away from patient care.  This is where the services of a virtual receptionist can make a difference. With calls being diverted to a virtual receptionist the clinician can concentrate on providing treatments.

With diary management and patient records also being taken care of, the percentage of time spent on patient care can soar.  More time means the ability to provide full treatments to more patients; it means less of the “next please” and more holistic treatment of the person not just the symptoms.  In short more time means that clinicians can step up to the culture of compassion demanded and in the process help to take health services to the next level.

Telephone back up

The Suffolk coroner, Peter Dean, is writing to the NHS Norfolk and Waveney primary care trust to emphasise the importance of having a telephone back-up system in place. The correspondence arose following an inquest over the death of a patient whose family had difficulty contacting their local GP due to a telephone line failure.

Whilst the lack of phone contact was not deemed to have contributed to the patient’s death, the coroner did highlight the importance of proper plans being in place to cover telephone outages.  In this particular instance apparently the phone lines were out of action for over 24 hours with calls being diverted to a single mobile.

The coroner’s observations on the importance of telephone answering could equally be applied to any health practitioner.  Calls to make appointments, to query symptoms or to ask for advice are all vitally important to current and prospective patients and if they are unanswered then either the patient’s problem can escalate or they may simply go elsewhere.  For example patients may choose to visit A&E if the GP is unavailable or may go to another chiropractor if their first choice doesn’t answer the phone.

So the problem of maintaining an open telephone line is not just confined to times when phone systems develop a fault.  But for many health practitioners this poses a dilemma with the choice being between interrupting a patient consultation and not answering the phone call.  The answer is to use the services of a virtual receptionist.

Virtual receptionist services can answer calls, make appointments and even screen unwanted sales calls.  Available on a full time or as needed basis the virtual receptionist service means that calls need never go unanswered again.  With added extras such as diary management, appointment reminders and patient records management the virtual receptionist helps to maximise patient treatment time without compromising service standards.

Because virtual receptionists work via the internet, even if the health practitioner’s own telephone line goes down the receptionist can take over, receiving calls and making appointments which the practitioner can view on line.

Following the phone failure incident last year the health centre concerned has upgraded its phone services with a view to avoiding repeat problems.  But the story is a lesson for all those who provide health services on the importance of ensuring a back-up plan is in place before it is too late.

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