How Cross-Training Can Supercharge Your Practice's Talent Pool

By Keli O'Connor, COMT, ABOC November 20, 2020

The cost of hiring a new employee is high. Employers can spend thousands of dollars bringing in new clerical staff, opticians, and technicians. It’s an investment to take on the process of online recruiting, interviewing, background checks, onboarding, and training. In fact, one study in particular estimates that each new hire can cost a practice over a month of work and $4,000 from the budget -- and that’s before taking any employee benefits into consideration.

Hiring talented individuals is necessary for a successful eye care practice, but there are ways to get the most from the expense. One of the most efficient ways is to invest in your team's training. Going beyond the basics of training and teaching staff how to help around the office in additional roles or cross-training, can add even more value to your office’s investment.

Cross-Training for Practice Needs

When a practice cross-trains support staff, those employees learn how to help patients and their co-workers alike. If the optical floor is packed, having an assistant step onto the floor to help the optician fit glasses can potentially prevent a customer from walking away, retaining a spectacle sale. Teaching technicians how to use all of the special testing machines in the office renders hiring a separate assistant for photography unnecessary and can reduce the total patient time in the office by cutting down how long patients wait for testing.

Employees who have been thoroughly trained in a field, at reception, or in opticianry or physician assisting, are often willing to learn more to expand their knowledge and value within the practice. The receptionist scheduling patients will do so more accurately if she knows more about ocular health; the assistant could better understand the refractive needs of the patient if they know more theory about how glasses are fit.

Employees are often excited to learn new things in their first weeks and months in the office and are therefore more primed to receive education and helpful techniques. Once fully trained in the role they were primarily hired for, having them work with those in other departments intermittently ensures that they learn the proper way to perform tasks.  By periodically working in other departments, employees are more apt to retain the information they've learned.

Keep Your Staff and Office in Mind

There are some very important things to realize when hiring staff with the intention of cross-training. Firstly, not everyone is willing (or able) to do all facets of the job. There are some phenomenal opticians out there who are completely content in their sales or fitting roles. Likewise, some technicians have extensive knowledge of ocular anatomy and pathology, but get wholly lost on optics principles. You can lead a tech to a lensmeter, but you can't make them read prism from a lens.

You may find that some staff members are more comfortable in the optical shop or checking acuity. And that’s okay. Cross-training is still essential. If all of the patients have been seen by the doctor and the sales floor is bustling, having extra help, even someone just writing down frame and lens options, can make a big difference. Early in the morning, if there is a line to check-in patients, having staff trained to work at the front desk can prevent bottlenecking, which in turn can save the entire day from getting thrown off schedule.

Key Points to Remember

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Although cross-training is typically done in the office, it still costs money to pay staff for training sessions and staff meetings. That said, providing employees with ample time and materials helps them grow professionally, increasing their confidence and skillsets for optimal patient care. A knowledgeable staff goes a long way and reassures patients that they are being cared for by responsible professionals. When patients feel good about their care, they are more likely to recommend the practice to others.

It is crucial to hire based on the needs of the office. Maybe your office doesn't fit specialty contact lenses but has an in-house spectacle lab; your office would probably benefit more by bringing in a versatile optician than a scleral fitting technician. By being mindful of what your practice offers to patients, you can hire and train more effectively. 

While it is true that you can train workers to do a task, but you can't change their personality, it is not always best to hire a smiling face in the hopes that you can teach them to bevel lenses or fit advanced RGP lens prescriptions. A cheery personality and a smiling face are great for patient relations, but there is much more to quality patient care than that. Striking a balance between personality, drive, and ability is a difficult one, but finding talent with all three attributes is crucial to the future of office staffing and training.

Keli O'Connor, COMT, ABOC

Keli is a writer, optician, and ophthalmic technician who has worked in eyecare since 2008. She has managed and trained teams in both optometry and ophthalmology. Keli is the author of The Optimal Tech, a guidebook for eyecare personnel, and currently works as a clinical coordinator for a retinal degeneration center in Philadelphia, PA. Her work has been published in Translational Vision Science & Technology. When not writing, she enjoys reading and outdoor exploration. Follow her on Twitter at @KeliBOConnor.

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