Retreat may help physicians resolve long-standing issues

I don’t need to tell physicians what trying times these are for them. Taking the time to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to their practice and where it is headed is more important than ever before as it will set the course for years and give you a certain peace of mind.

A practice retreat can be the perfect answer to these problems. A change of scenery and a block of uninterrupted meeting time can help busy physicians and their staff confront management issues once and for all and clear the air of nagging problems. A retreat can also enable staff members to get to know each other better and learn more effective ways to communicate with and work with each other. However, a worthwhile practice retreat must be carefully planned.

To make a practice retreat worthwhile, begin by defining the real purpose of your retreat. Retreats are not just getting away for a few days and then going back to work. A successful practice retreat definitely is NOT:

  • A series of half-hour department presentations
  • A grievance session
  • A projection of the next couple of years
  • A summary of new projects under development

This sort of information is operational and should be done within the timeframe of your regularly daily, weekly, and/or monthly staff meetings.

Since retreats are costly gatherings, both in terms of time and dollars, they should be used only to accomplish very important goals that can’t be reached through the usual staff meetings. Here are some basic steps I would suggest:

1. Interview a few experienced health care facilitators and select the one that has the energy and character to run a long meeting but not dominate the retreat. The right facilitator will want to know about you and your practice well before the retreat. The efforts of the facilitator and the cost of the facilitator will also force you to take all of this seriously and get more out of the time you spend on this. The facilitator should not have any pre-determined agenda other than to guide you and question you.

2. All retreats should be work-oriented. Hold a retreat only if you can develop an agenda around specific topics on which action can be taken.

3. Select a location that is away from the office that provides drinks, food, snacks, etc. so that you can focus on your discussions. It must be a place where you can talk openly and not be distracted by everyday matters, business and personal. Do not invite your staff’s spouses or families to attend. They will only distract the employees and their presence may confuse things.

4. Choose the right people to attend your retreat. Depending on how involved your CPA, attorney and other outside advisors are will guide you with regard to them. The key people that help run your practice must be there, even if there is discord between some of them. The facilitator should help them prepare beforehand so that they are ready come retreat time.

5. When to have the retreat sometimes can be the most difficult thing to determine. The sooner the better is the immediate answer but there must be enough time given to prepare for the retreat and the key people must all be available. Be mindful not to plan your retreat around the December holidays, in June during busy graduation and wedding season, or during other busy times of the year.

6. Publicize the dates of the retreat well in advance. Make it clear that everyone is expected to attend. Pay for all expenses and compensate your staff for their time. Your key people will want to attend if they understand the purpose of the retreat.

7. So understanding what you want to accomplish in the retreat is where you tie everyone in to be truly involved and committed. This is where you must stop the world and think about what you want to accomplish. It might be better communication with staff, improved efficiency within the office procedures, increased productivity in patient volume, greater net profits – maybe all of the above. It may be to simply assess the state of your medical practice and plan for the most likely scenarios that may affect the future of your practice. Caution: don’t try to accomplish too much and achieve nothing.

8. Following up after your retreat is everything. Unfortunately, some retreats seem successful while they are in session, but nothing ever gets done. The best retreats lead to positive change. Therefore, assign a retreat secretary to record and afterwards distribute copies of the proceedings and decisions. Within a week of the retreat, basic goals should be clarified, specific work assignments should be given to key members to fine-tune decisions made at the retreat. No later than three weeks afterwards, deliver specific assignments with deadlines to all staff members to confirm their assignments have or are currently being implemented. Accountability for the things to be done is needed. Just remember that goals, tasks and who will be accountable must have some flexibility as everyone starts on this process.

Get your business life where you want it to be. If all goes well you will be looking forward to your next annual retreat.

Jim Rice, CPA is a shareholder at Sol Schwartz & Associates. He more than four decades of experience in public accounting. In addition to providing business consultation, financial planning and various other accounting services, Jim specializes in income tax planning and consultation. He works extensively in medical practice accounting, with a high concentration of physician practices and high net worth individuals, and is a member of the San Antonio Medical Group Management Association and the Bexar County Medical Society. Jim also serves on the Board of Directors of Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas. Contact Jim at (210) 384-8000.