Staff or staph: asset or infection?

May 13, 2010
Doctors cannot do what they do without the staff. Rhonda R. Savage, DDS, tells readers why she thinks "staff" is a great word.

By Rhonda R. Savage, DDS

You’ve heard the old saying “Walk a mile in another person’s shoes before you criticize them.” Here’s a fun twist: “Walk a mile in another person’s shoes before you criticize them. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes!”

I’d better start walking now, because I plan to be critical. I’ve heard people say, “Don’t call them staff. That’s an infection.” I respectfully disagree. Walk with me and let me know what you think.

As a former dental assistant and front office person, I know how hard the dental staff works. I also know the challenges dentists face daily. As someone who’s been in nearly all levels of the profession, I personally don’t understand what’s wrong with the word “staff.” In fact, I believe the term staff should be a badge of honor and worn proudly. Patients trust staff opinion and follow their directions. Doctors cannot do what they do without the staff. Staff is a great word.

Check out these definitions, (which are from Wikipedia, so you know they must be true):

Staff — A group of assistants to a manager; something that serves as a staple or a support.

Staffed — To provide with a staff of workers or assistants; a group of people employed by a company, individual, etc., for executive, clerical, or sales work.

Staff — Personnel who assist their superior in carrying out an assigned task; professional or clerical workers in an office. A group of people employed in running a business.

What do you think about the term “dental staff”? Some say not to call them a staff. They say it’s an insult and an infection. They want to be called a dental team. OK. What’s the definition of a team?

Team — A cooperative unit.

Team up — Join, unite, work together, cooperate, get together, band together, collaborate, join forces.

Team spirit — Willingness of each member of a team or group to work together with loyalty and enthusiasm.

Teamwork — Cooperation between those who are working together on a task, etc.

Here’s my point: The team includes the doctor, office administrator or manager, as well as every employee. And please don’t forget the most important person on your team: the patient!

What’s the acronym for team? Together Everyone Accomplishes More. “Team” includes everyone who is working together to accomplish a common goal. As a team, we need our staff. The staff is actually the most important asset of a dental office. They are most certainly not an infection! The practice exists because of the dentist, succeeds because of the staff, and thrives because of the team.

What happens, however, if we’ve got a bad apple ... an infection ... in the bunch? The bad apple can be the dentist, a team member, or the patient. This is where the definition of staph comes in — staph can cause a range of infections. The most common bacteria is Staphylococcus Aureus, often shortened to S. aureus. S. aureus can be a mild skin infection or life-threatening illnesses such as toxic shock syndrome, respiratory, bone, joint, endovascular, or wound infections.

S. aureus can infect other tissues and spread by contact. Staph infection that is not antibiotic-resistant can be treated in about a month (depending upon the severity). Today, S. aureus has become resistant to many commonly used antibiotics. The spread of S. aureusis through human-to-human contact.

Here’s my rationale: Sometimes the staph isn’t the staff. The infection, or “bad apple,” can be any member of the team. This is the question to consider: If you put a bad apple in a barrel of good apples, do the good ones turn the bad apple good? Probably not. But sometimes through encouragement, training, and coaching, you can take a difficult staff person, doctor, or patient and make a good apple.

In most dental offices, the question of good and bad is complex. There are many reasons why a problem can exist and why someone, whether patient, doctor, or team member, is like he is. In this short article, there’s not enough time to list all the situations I’ve witnessed, but I do have solutions. In 35 years of consulting, Miles and Associates helped positively resolve many infectious problems in dental offices.

There are two leadership questions you should apply when addressing a bad apple problem:

  1. Is what is happening in the best interest of the patient?
  2. Is what is happening in the best interest of the practice as a healthy practice?

If the answer to either is no, the problem needs to be resolved.

Doctors: If you have a situation and don’t resolve it, one of two things will happen. The rest of the team will begin acting like the “bad” person, or worse, you’ll lose the respect of the rest of the team. Problems need to be met head on and resolved. Begin by coaching your staff daily and let the troubled person know specifically what he or she needs to be doing. Coaching should be done with dignity and privacy. If you’re upset, I recommend that you calm down, collect your thoughts, and address the issue within 24 hours.

Begin by examining your intentions. Is your goal to humiliate and humble the other person? Or is it to motivate and change behavior? If you approach all problems with a clear heart and head and controlled emotions, you’ll be more successful with your communication and intent.

Remember that for people to learn and change, they may need to hear something six to 11 times. Repetition is the key to your success. As leaders, we feel we over-communicate, but studies have shown we actually under-communicate by a ratio of 1:10.

Doctors: Begin discussing staff attitude issues by discussing job performance. If you say, “You’re not a good team player,” someone can argue with you. If you say, “Sarah, you’ve been leaving early. You’ve also been picking and choosing the patients you will and won’t see, not helping with sterilization, and you’re on your cell phone during the day, which is against office policy.” Then talk about attitude and teamwork. By never sidestepping a problem, you can engender courage, enthusiasm, and teamwork in others.

Danny Meyer has a chapter in his book, "Setting the Table," called “Constant Gentle Pressure.” He writes that the three hallmarks of effective leadership are to provide a clear vision for your business so that your staff and patients know where you're taking them, to hold people accountable for consistent standards of excellence, and to communicate a well-defined set of cultural priorities and nonnegotiable values.

If you don’t get the needed response, then it’s time for a corrective review. For a copy of our corrective reviews and effective performance review forms, e-mail me at [email protected].

Team members: If the problem is a coworker, approach the person and use the “feel-felt-found” method. As an example, say you’re having a problem with Tami. You feel she’s not carrying her weight, she’s leaving early and not being a team member, and she’s not helping out 100% with instruments, stocking, or clean up. Before talking with the doctor(s), I recommend approaching Tami with a clear heart and kindness in your voice. Say, “Tami, I’d like to talk with you about the end-of-the-day duties. Is this a good time? If not, when is?”

Then say, “Tami, I have some concerns and I’ve hesitated approaching you because I was worried about how you’d take it. My intention is that you and I work well together because not only does that feel good, I know it’s in the best interest of our patients and the practice. I feel frustrated at the end of the day when you leave early. I’ve felt that if I can talk about it, we can probably work it out together rather than involving the doctor. I’ve found that often, when difficulties exist, working it out together can make us a stronger team.”

Patients: Doctors should always know that day if a patient has complained. As best as possible, the complaint should be resolved the same day. However, you cannot please all patients all the time. Approach the problem with your best intention in your heart. Be open, listen well, and be reasonable with your emotions. Apologize using the “feel, felt, found” method. You’re not admitting fault, you’re simply softening the person’s issues by recognizing how they feel. Address issues of lateness, no shows, or rude patients. Strive for a level of professionalism where the patient comes first, but you should also hold patients to reasonable guidelines and expectations.

Staff: What if the problem is the doctor? We all have difficult times in our lives. I personally had a time when my attitude affected my job performance. My team approached me as a group and said, “Dr. Savage, can we talk with you? Is this a good time?” I said, “Absolutely!” They said, “We think you’re a great person and terrific dentist, but you need to know that we feel your attitude is affecting the practice. Our intentions are that you have the very best practice, the most successful staff, and that your patients are happy. However, we feel your attitude is affecting the practice.”

Sometimes, as doctors, we need to hear that what we’re doing affects the practice. Here is the key: We need to be open to the staff and patients’ information and not become angry. We need to be approachable.

Can a bad apple become a good one? With people, the answer is yes. But it takes time, effort, training, and willingness. Are staff an infection? Absolutely not! They are the greatest asset of a dental practice. However, individual staff, doctor(s), or patients can be like staph, the consequences of which can be spread from human to human. I challenge you not to accept status quo. Work to resolve issues and be happy. You have the ability to choose your attitude and the people you surround yourself with; life is too short to be unhappy. I like the saying, “Are you going to whine or shine?”

Author bio
Rhonda Savage, DDS, has been in private practice for 16 years, and is the CEO for Linda L. Miles and Associates, an internationally known practice management and consulting business. Dr. Savage is a noted speaker who lectures on practice management, esthetic dentistry, women's health issues, periodontal disease, communication and marketing, and zoo dentistry. You may reach Dr. Savage at [email protected].