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New ways of practice management

Major disruption that shakes up an industry is usually associated with new technology or business models, like smartphones or Netflix.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a significant challenge for many medical practices. It has disrupted the healthcare industry, causing it to reshape patient management and accelerate its use of digital technology.

Adapting to change

As the health emergency evolved, practices needed to adapt to new circumstances and come up with innovative solutions to stay ahead.

Many embraced a ‘new normal’ which required them to navigate a minefield of workplace and staffing issues, such as managing vulnerable workers, responding to COVID-19 diagnoses and managing staff working from home.

The situation also led to significant protocol changes within practices. This included the introduction of social distancing measures to minimise the transmission of COVID-19, hygiene and cleaning measures, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the context of limited PPE stockpiles.

Many practices faced a decline in their business, leading to reduced staff hours, difficult decisions about redundancies and in some cases, closing the business.

On the positive side, the pandemic has driven many practices, by necessity, to accelerate their digital transformation. Some practices have employed online patient self-triaging tools for COVID-19 or used reception staff to screen suspected, probable or confirmed cases of COVID-19 to avoid having patients suspected of having the virus, in the waiting room with other patients.

Not only have practices adapted during the pandemic, but some have devised innovative solutions. For example, some hospitals and pathology clinics have set up drive-through COVID-19 testing clinics. Other practices have increased their patient numbers by offering outdoor flu vaccination clinics.

A ‘new normal’

As practices resume a ‘new normal,’ it is important to look after the mental health of all staff returning to work. We offer key support services, as well as specific support during the pandemic through Doctors' Health Advisory Services in your state or territory.

Work health and safety laws require practices to ensure the health and safety of their workers, patients and others at the workplace as far as reasonably practicable by implementing measures to eliminate or minimise the spread of COVID-19. For example, social distancing, hand hygiene, PPE and triaging protocols.

As practices start to re-open, they must consider what steps are necessary to keep staff safe. For example, whether vulnerable workers or other workers who may be at higher risk (for example, pregnant workers or workers who support vulnerable family members) should return to the workplace. View our answers to frequently asked questions on managing vulnerable workers.

“Practices now have an opportunity to continue with changes that arose due to necessity and to consider the possibility of future innovations."

Practices should encourage all workers to have a flu vaccination and need to manage those staff who elect not to.

Inevitably, disputes with staff members will arise. We can assist practices if a dispute arises and recommend that practices notify us as soon as possible.

Out of adversity comes opportunity

Practices now have an opportunity to continue with changes that arose due to necessity and to consider the possibility of future innovations. Practices should consider whether there are ways of doing things differently or more efficiently, rather than just returning to ‘business as usual’.

For example, this is an opportunity to consider your practice’s staffing requirements and whether changes need to be made.

Many staff will have demonstrated they can effectively work from home and are likely to demand this flexibility moving forward. Therefore, practices will need to develop protocols for dealing with requests to work from home and ensure that appropriate policies are in place to facilitate it. For example, ensuring that practice policies apply when staff work from home and considering data security requirements.

‘Future-proof’ your practice

We may not see a pandemic again in our lifetime, but we can learn lessons from the COVID-19 emergency that will better protect our practices in the future from natural disasters such as floods, fires and cyclones.

Practices should consider how their business can continue to operate when a disaster occurs. These measures should be outlined in a business continuity plan which can be activated at short notice. The RACGP’s resource Managing emergencies and pandemics can assist in developing these plans and can be applied to any speciality.

A business continuity plan should consider factors such as:

  • Ongoing patient treatment, including access to medical records.
  • Communicating with patients and staff.
  • Access to business and other records if the physical practice is damaged.

As practices go through the recovery phase of the pandemic, it is also an ideal time to develop a ‘recovery plan’. The lessons that are learned now should be documented to assist with early recovery in future circumstances.

Future proofing your practice requires ongoing review. The RACGP’s guide to Managing emergencies and pandemics was developed some years ago. However, sadly, when the recent bushfires occurred, many practices were unprepared as the guide had sat on a shelf and was not activated or reviewed for when the reality presented.

Useful resources