How Much Is Conflict Costing Your Practice?

By: Regina Mixon Bates

Today more than ever, the healthcare sector faces growing pressures that will further tax its capabilities and inhibit its ability to meet growing needs and demands of our patient population. Significant challenges of practicing medicine include: financial pressures, increasing competition, staffing shortages, employee and patient safety concerns, and a significant increase in the consumption of healthcare related services. Overcoming these challenges will require that management seek creative strategies to improve and maintain high performance of employees. With that being said, it becomes obvious that improving and maintaining high employee morale is a key factor to consider in the pursuit of organizational success.

Conflict is nothing more than two people disagreeing about something (real or superficial) and that disagreement being emotionally felt by at least one of the parties. Conflicts exist in every workplace and a medical practice or a hospital department is no exemption. From a business standpoint, addressing conflict and dysfunctional interactive dynamics when a practice is not in a dilemma is just as relevant to a healthy bottom line as efforts directed toward revenue cycle management and overhead control. Due to the interdependent environment of a medical practice, effectively dealing with dysfunction in one area improves productivity and efficiency across the board.

While opportunities to understand significant cost savings in healthcare are fading, dealing with unresolved conflict is an area where nearly every practice can still benefit from an earnest review. It is said that unresolved conflict represents the largest reducible cost in businesses across the board.

Many times medical groups don't always operated as businesses, so here are some areas that you should look at to see where conflict might be costing your practice money and then put a dollar amount to it:

Loss of Productivity
What is the cost for each hour that professionals, managers, and staff are distracted from getting their assignments done because of conflict? $___________

What is the cost of loss of quality of work? $___________

Loss of Relationships
How much better would clients be served if members of a client service team worked together smoothly to provide superior service? $___________

What would be the cost of losing a client because the team members were competing rather than collaborating? $___________

Emotional Strain and Pain
What is the cost in health care/medical treatment made necessary by stress-related illness? $___________

What is the cost in personal work dissatisfaction and potential personnel turnover caused by an inhospitable work environment? $___________

TOTAL DOLLAR COST $___________

Not withstanding the dollar cost to the practice, experience suggests that even when longstanding unresolved conflict is acknowledged and openly discussed within a practice, leadership and physicians may still fail to take appropriate action for various reasons. Physicians and managers often admit that they are not comfortable dealing with emotionally charged situations or that they feel uncomfortable, not knowing exactly what to say or do. Others have said that they fear they will intensify the situation(s), making a bigger problem. Another common response often voiced from office managers is, "I'm not a babysitter or I have my own real work to do." It is at this point that many managers should understand how addressing these types of issues actually are their responsibility, and that taking a hands-off approach is not an option.

You can then work on identifying any chronic patterns and recognizing the effects of conflict, beginning in its earliest stages which might include the following areas:

Without intervention, these issues are unlikely to resolve on their own. Many office managers and front desk supervisors have no formal training in conflict resolution and may not even be aware of the methods to use in these situations. For example, a new or recently promoted-from-within office manager with high affiliation needs may fear a challenge to his/her authority and may delay intervention in attempts to try to stay on good terms with those who used to be peers.

So How Do You Reduce the Cost of Conflict?
You cannot afford to mishandle conflict in the practice. So, short of hiring a consultant, there are several things you can do for yourself to deal more effectively with conflict and reduce its cost. It will make your job a lot easier, more enjoyable, and your operations less costly.

1. Educate your office manager by sending them to workshops and providing them with the necessary resources to improve their skills and keep them current. It is in your best interest to do so, even if that means spending a little money. Unresolved conflict will result in problems that will uproot your other staffers, compounding in costs and lost efficiency the higher they progress.
2. Learn to recognize the very beginning of conflict within your practice. Be alert to the signs of conflict in its earliest stages, and act to resolve it quickly.
3. Do not attempt to suppress conflict. Rather, create an environment where conflict is understood, addressed, and resolved efficiently. Just as you have defined clinical and business processes, you also need to develop systematic processes for identifying and addressing conflict.

Encourage your staff to resolve conflict at the lowest level possible. Encourage them to learn and apply appropriate conflict resolution strategies.

The possibility of conflict exists whenever two people interact, and conflict in and of itself is not fundamentally bad. In fact, conflict can actually be a good thing in that it can work to enhance the creation process, to nurture new ideas, to produce new solutions, and to aid group dynamics. So, it's not the fact that conflict occurs that is a problem in medical practice. It's the failure to address that conflict in a timely and efficient manner that increases your practice costs.

Lastly, in the busy and stressful environment of medical practice, leaders must remain focused on ensuring that patients receive the best care possible and employees remain motivated and enriched by their work. Accomplishing both can be a difficult and challenging task for the best of managers; however, managers who take the time to understand what motivates one individual staff member from another can energize staff by recognizing and celebrating their accomplishments often through inexpensive and simple measures to include: employee of the month awards, luncheons, and staff recognition days. Managers who serve their staff by helping out when it comes to patient care can also energize staff and improve morale by setting a personal example of good work ethic and motivation. This, in return, can help your staff to recognize the importance of their work and stay in touch with the service orientation that initially brought them to the health care field.

Regina Mixon Bates, CEO
IRO, CPC, CPC-I, Approved ICD-10 AHIMA Trainer, CMOM, CMC, CMIS
The Physicians Practice S.O.S GroupĀ®