by Lori Garland Parker

Defining the role will help you decide

What is the role of a clinical coordinator in today’s successful orthodontic practice? The answer varies as widely from office to office as does clinical practice philosophy. After having visited many offices as a clinical consultant, I have observed that the majority of job descriptions in an orthodontic practice are better defined than that of the clinical coordinator. For example, the new-patient coordinator is typically the person responsible for enrolling new patients into the practice. The financial coordinator usually manages accounts receivable and follows up on delinquent accounts. Clinical coordinator duties vary more than those of any other job description in orthodontic practices—beginning with the title.

Many orthodontists are reluctant to assign this title to one clinical employee, fearing that this would cause dissent within the clinical team. The result is often that one person is asked to take on some of the coordinator responsibilities (but not the title) in addition to his or her clinical duties—or else the orthodontist must work hard to see patients as well as manage the clinic. In other offices, every clinician does a little bit of everything, often with a less-than-ideal result.

Even in offices where clinical job duties and titles are clearly identified, the responsibilities of the clinical coordinator vary greatly from practice to practice. In some offices, the clinical coordinator is primarily a flow manager, coordinating patient flow by guiding the orthodontist from one patient to the next, deciding when and if extra procedures can be done, creating room to schedule emergency patients, and so on. Frequently, this person also helps train new staff members and, in some cases, manages inventory if nonpatient time is available.

In other practices, the clinical coordinator also has extensive management duties, including coaching clinical staff, participating in performance reviews, and managing conflict between team members. This person may also be responsible for coordinating staff work schedules and vacation time, or for hiring and firing. Those clinical coordinators who have management responsibilities ideally serve as cheerleaders, wheel-greasers, good listeners, advisers, and confidants, rather than as bosses. They subscribe to the philosophy of leading/pulling by example rather than pushing/prodding other staff members into good work patterns.

Case Study of a Clinical Coordinator
The description above perfectly fits Kim Plourde from the Waterville, Me, practice of Charles J. Ruff, DMD, PA. Kim’s job description has evolved considerably during the past 20 years. Approximately 15 years ago, when Ruff had a total of two clinical staff members, he asked Kim to help him interview an additional clinical team member. She was so successful in helping him find the right person that her enthusiasm for additional responsibilities continued to grow. She now works with four other clinical assistants (seeing approximately 70 patients per day), provides new-employee training, and holds clinical meetings. She also helps coworkers with clinical decision-making, assists with performance reviews, manages patient flow, and, of course, tells the orthodontist where he is needed next. As a clinical liaison, Kim also meets with Ruff and the front-office manager monthly to discuss practice-planning and management issues.

When I asked Kim for advice to share with Orthodontic Products’ readers, she responded, “When looking to fill the role of a clinical coordinator in your office, look for someone who understands and is able to manage patient flow, someone who can ensure that everybody keeps busy during nonpatient time. Make certain this person has the right attitude to help the office to grow, and knows how to ease the pressure on the doctor each day. It doesn’t have to be the most senior person, but someone who is detail-oriented and has great organizational skills.

“Attend a clinical coordinator class; I learned some great tips from Lori’s workshop. Also, customize and regularly update the office clinical procedures manual. In addition to clarifying for current staff how procedures should be done, a clinical manual is a huge asset when training new staff. Another suggestion for the doctors is to spend time educating the team. Monthly training sessions are a great way to keep your team updated on the latest techniques and help everyone understand how you think.”

Size Matters
Not all clinical coordinators have a full patient schedule. Some spend the day helping with comfort-adjustment (emergency) patients, assisting other clinical team members with extra procedures, training new employees, ordering supplies, preparing statistical reports, handling correspondence, and speaking with patients and parents. The focus is on whatever it takes to provide excellent customer service and stay on time. Kim Morphis, from the Livermore, Calif, practice of Tom Marcel, DDS, finds that not having a full column of patients allows her to focus on other clinical responsibilities to ensure that their busy clinic runs smoothly.

The role of the clinical coordinator can also vary widely with the size of the practice. A practice with multiple orthodontists or a clinical team of more than four clinical assistants (the type that sees approximately 70 patients per day) has the need to assign clinical-management duties. Smaller practices typically require a somewhat less formal approach, yet still must identify ways for the clinic to run as smoothly as possible and ensure that patients receive outstanding service throughout their treatment. For example, a clinical team of two or three that sees fewer than 50 patients per day may be able to share the management workload with the orthodontist.

In Gilbert Snow, DDS’s large practice in Palmdale, Calif, Shannon Whittaker has engineered a progressive approach to her role as clinical coordinator. After 1 year with the practice, she was promoted to the clinical coordinator position. At that time, the practice was seeing approximately 80 patients per day. Once it expanded to 90 patients per day, she slowly worked out of direct patient care and began staying with Snow as he treated each patient. That was 16 years ago.

Snow now has seven locations and 52 staff members. Shannon has assigned a clinical coordinator to each of the four practices open simultaneously to ensure that each particular clinic runs smoothly. She is adamant about choosing the right person for the job—not necessarily the longest-term employee. She knows that the individual chosen must be able to see the “big picture,” be an efficient multitasker, pay attention to detail, and have excellent management skills. This person must also know Snow “like the back of her hand.”

Shannon is now accountable for overseeing all the offices. She schedules work and vacation time for each of the 28 clinical staff members, organizes and holds weekly meetings, maintains the clinical operations manual, and is the liaison between Snow and the clinical team.

Meet Your Needs
When evaluating the need for a clinical coordinator in your office, begin by identifying the “ideal” scope of the position. Ask yourself the following questions: What clinical challenges are we experiencing? What responsibilities could be taken from the orthodontist and given to the right person who would get those jobs done? What would make the clinical assistant’s day run more smoothly? How might we enhance our level of customer service in the clinic? What talent, experience, and/or training would be required to prepare an individual for this role? Be careful to avoid thinking about the talents of your current team. Instead, focus on the ideal aptitude. Then, begin grooming the appropriate person for the position.

Preferably, the clinical coordinator is an experienced staff member who shows leadership skills, is able to easily multitask, and enjoys taking the initiative. Those practices lucky enough to have two or more clinical staff members with these attributes may choose to rotate the clinical coordinator’s role by the month or by the quarter. Such an arrangement could prove especially beneficial when one of them goes on vacation, or has urgent medical or family needs.

When selecting an individual who would be involved with conflict-resolution duties, choose someone who can develop an understanding of difference without judging, who is willing to see more than one perspective, and who is able to provide more than one solution. Such a person is better prepared to understand emotions that can trigger conflict, clarify performance expectations, and provide ongoing feedback for the support and development of team members.

Obviously, the clinical coordinator needs to have a clear understanding of the orthodontist and practice. However, the person with the most tenure is not automatically the best choice for this position. Sometimes, the most experienced assistant’s strengths could be in areas outside daily management. This may be one reason why the job description varies so much among offices. Combining the talents of the most experienced person with those of another person can offer a unique mixture of abilities that can fit the needs of a specific practice.

For example, one person may have expertise at inventory management and keeping the clinical training/procedure manual updated. Another may have the skills needed for day-to-day clinical management. Those skill sets can be used to design job descriptions specific to the needs of individual practices.

Sometimes, management techniques are like cement … permanently set! It is important to understand that persistent innovation is a lasting competitive advantage and management strategy. No technique, procedure, or course of action has a permanent lifetime. Tapping into the trust and collective spirit of all employees to develop new and creative management ideas will reap large rewards. It will help your practice run more smoothly and profitably, and it will make your team members more fulfilled. Ask yourself, “Is a clinical coordinator right for my practice?” If your answer is “Yes,” begin the process of choosing and coaching the right person today.

Lori Garland Parker is a clinical consultant and co-owner of Consulting Network. She works with orthodontic teams to maximize their talents to achieve clinical efficiency and effectiveness, develop systems for continuity of care, and enhance communication skills with patients and parents. Her clinical coordinator courses and customizable clinical training and procedures manual prepares participants for the important job of managing the clinic. She can be contacted at (805) 552-9512 or