By Susan Resnick, OD, FAAO, FSLS
August 12, 2020
Hiring an associate is one of the biggest decisions a practice can make, impacting patient care as well as profitability. Here is how my practice, which has three partner ODs and two associate ODs, wades through the decision-making process when considering the addition of an associate, and how we manage the logistics of the hiring process.
Assessing the Value of Adding an Associate
The value of an associate can be measured from a financial perspective, a practice enhancement perspective and a personal, “quality-of-life” perspective. Our practice philosophy is that an associate is essential to growth when the principal doctors are booked more than two weeks out. When this occurs, it becomes difficult to accommodate emergencies, see new patients in a timely fashion, and schedule needed follow-ups for new contact lens wearers, post-surgical patients and newly diagnosed glaucoma patients.
Limited scheduling flexibility not only may compromise patient care, but will inevitably stunt financial growth. Hiring an associate to introduce or grow a sub-specialty, and to enable full-scope optometric care, is key to ensuring both financial success as well as enhancing the practice’s brand.
Equally important, especially for doctors like me who are within about a decade of retirement, is having the ability to reduce hours or days of patient care to pursue vocational interests or to engage in other professional activities such as consulting, speaking and mentoring.
Where Do I Find the Associate I Need?
Once you have decided to add an associate, you need to consider what subset of skills your associate should bring to the practice. Your first step should be to reach out to the directors of the residency programs at the schools and colleges of optometry for new graduates in the desired specialty. If there is no specialty “requirement,” you can reach out to the alumni organizations of the optometry schools. There is usually no fee, or a nominal fee, to post a job opening.
Other search methods include professional forums on social media where you can post an ad (typically at no cost).
Finally, word-of-mouth and networking is a powerful tool. We have networked with colleagues at professional meetings to get the word out when we were actively seeking candidates.
As a contact-lens specialty practice, we have always directed our search toward residency-trained or new grads who have had strong rotations in contact lenses. Our current associates both fall into the latter category, one of them having worked as a technician in our practice throughout her optometry school education.
What Soft Skills Does My Associate Need?
From a patient care perspective, we look for candidates who have excellent communication skills and who can deal with all kinds of patients (not only clinically but emotionally). From a business perspective, we look for candidates who clearly put the interests of patients and the practice first.
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They must be self-starters with an entrepreneurial spirit. They demonstrate this by putting forth their best effort to grow their practice base and working beyond just the normal clinic hours to help with marketing and staff training. As much as we value individuality, we find it equally important that a new associate be a good fit with our office culture and be able to broadly adapt to our current clinical protocols. These are important to promoting acceptance of the new doctor by both staff and patients.
On-the-Job Candidate Evaluations Work Best
Having narrowed down a short list of excellent candidates, our next step is to offer “on the job” interviews. We bring in prospective associates to work for about a week to get real life experience. It allows for a mutual evaluation of the clinical setting and skill-set as well as personality and demeanor. It is just as important that a future associate like us as much as we like them!
Editor’s Note: Laws related to on-the-job interviews vary by state. It is best to consult with a human resources attorney before asking applicants to work in the practice before they have been formally hired.
After the “interview week,” we sit down and ask and answer more questions, or iron out concerns. If two candidates perform equally well, we will let our support staff weigh in. Our staff is experienced and astute, and often see things in a different light from the owners, which is helpful in guiding us.
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Having the Partnership & Salary Conversations
We make it clear from the beginning that while partnership is always a possibility, it will likely take at least five years before serious discussion surrounding that would commence. We value new associates who are looking for partnership as we believe they will be more invested in the success of the practice as well as their own professional growth. However, we believe it takes at least five years for them to really know if partnership is right for them and for us to be assured that they are partnership material. We define “partnership material” as having good business sense (or the ability to acquire it), leadership skills and exhibiting creativity and initiative.
I recommend speaking with local doctor-owners to learn what salaries are being offered in nearby towns and cities. One common hurdle for independent ODs is competing with the salaries offered by corporate employers. While we independent ODs want to offer as competitive salaries as possible, we likely cannot match entry-level corporate OD salaries.
The new hire must understand that as their productivity grows, so too, will their compensation. We believe that in addition to personal time off, benefits should include, at a minimum, full health-care coverage, professional liability premiums, professional dues and attendance at one national conference per year.
Offering a Livable Work Life for Associates
Today’s young graduates place great value on work-life balance. This is easily misinterpreted as a marginal work ethic by some older practitioners. It is important to find a mutually respectful approach to the business and to develop a clear understanding of one another’s professional and personal goals.
After all, professional partnership is like a marriage and we often spend more time with one another than with our life partners!