Your Family Doktors, a 25-year-old family practice in Webster, TX, faced many operational challenges over the past year as the COVID-19 pandemic sent healthcare into a tailspin. Office Manager Ashton Ardila, CMOM, CMIS, shared some of the hurdles and frustrations her team faced, and how the practice has persevered.
Although their office never closed, Your Family Doktors had many hurdles to cross to continue operating safely for their patients and staff. The 25-year-old family practice is located southeast of Houston. The “k” in the practice's title is a play on words. In Denmark, where the spouse of the owner is from, Doctor is spelled with a “k”. Three providers see patients ages 2 and up. Stay-at-home orders meant many patients were unable to come in or scared to be in a doctor’s office. Practice Manager Ashton Ardila recalls what it was like this time last year.
“We had a hard time helping people keep up with refills and not wanting to come in,” she said. “We fielded hundreds of calls from patients asking us where they could get tested. Some questions we didn’t have answers for, so we had to do a lot of research to make sure we were responding correctly to inquiries.”
They scoured the city and Internet to get hard-to-come-by cleaning supplies to safely keep their doors open. The biggest obstacle in the beginning was finding masks, gloves, and other PPE, she said. “I almost cried when I came across Lysol hidden at a local grocery store”.
“We needed to install plexiglass barriers at the front desk, but everyone was sold out. We found out we could get priority access to supplies on Amazon, so we got registered to get supplies like disinfectant sprays and masks.”
The practice’s patient volume decreased by half. It has improved somewhat but they are still down 30 percent over last year. Telehealth became an indispensable way to meet patient care needs. They got on board quickly but there was a lot to learn in a short time.
“We had to research the new codes and guidelines for telehealth visits. We found that some insurers pay at lower rates for telehealth, but most pay at normal rates. At a time when patients were reluctant to continue care, telehealth has really helped us and our patients. Two of our physicians love it, one prefers the face-to-face visits,” she said.
Now, a year later, they still face operational challenges, but they are different.
“A lot of patients have not returned, either because they were told not to or they are scared,” she said. “But things are getting better now that more info has been released, more supplies are available, vaccine sites have opened up, etc.”
Throughout the pandemic, Ashton and her team have grown from the experience. It is the kind of on-the-job training that you can never really be completely prepared for.
“I started in healthcare 15 years ago at the front desk doing administrative tasks. I had never worked at a medical office. I worked the phones then moved into billing claims collections. Nine years ago, I became the office manager.”
Before she got into healthcare, she worked as an executive assistant for a contracting firm hired to oversee the newly constructed International Terminal at Intercontinental Airport in Houston. In the early 2000s, Ashton worked in the Human Resources department at a healthcare center.
“I handled payroll, HR functions and banking. I liked it because it was three days a week. My daughter was an infant at the time, so I got to be home with her.”
She has been with Your Family Doktors for over fifteen years now and said the pandemic has taught her more about all areas of the office.
“I manage the front, help with the medical assistants, and I’ve became consumed with finding supplies, information about vaccines, and the billing codes. The beginning was frustrating. We were getting hundreds of calls a day. Patients and staff were scared and stressed out. It taught us all a lot of patience.
During the COVID crisis my role has definitely expanded into uncharted territory from procuring supplies to researching COVID issues; there were no pharmaceutical reps so we had shortage of samples. We have managed many, many COVID-related questions over the phone. These things were much more all-encompassing.”
The experiences learned over the past year have put her education and leadership skills to the test. Fast thinking and patience have helped Ashton through these stressful months, not only in preparing the office for the “new normal” but also how to bring patients into the office.
“I learned how to screen patients. We typically see sick patients but now screen them with what are now standard COVID-related questions like, have you had fever, been around someone with a fever or COVID, etc. We are trying to keep everyone safe.
Time management can be difficult for me, but I have learned through my PMI training and networking with other professionals that it is helpful to make a schedule and start the week out with an idea of what you want to accomplish and check it off as you go. It keeps me accountable and shows my progress – which is encouraging.”
Training gave her confidence. She has an Associate's degree and two certifications through Practice Management Institute: Certified Medical Office Manager (CMOM), and Certified Medical Insurance Specialist (CMIS).
“I was prepared to look up new insurance guidelines. My training also helped with OSHA and safety compliance. I knew what kind of products and documentation we needed – what guidelines we had to follow to keep us healthy and safe.
I like that the classes are taught by professionals with tons of real-life experience working in offices. You learn how each part of the office has to work together for it to run smoothly and efficiently and to make it a place where patients and staff want to be. My instructors always shared their contact info and really made themselves accessible to help answer questions.”
She has learned a lot on the job as well and really emphasized having a strong, well-trained front office staff.
“As a manager, I have to remember to be flexible and open to change. The other thing that I think is important is to make sure your front office staff is well-trained. Everything starts at the front desk. I attended PMI classes when I was at the front desk and it really helped me improve time management, patient interaction, self-accountability and that even the smallest details are important. Some of our best ideas came from our staff.”