In a typical workday, patients call on the telephone and ask to speak with me, technicians want to discuss patient situations with me, and secretaries ask me to review a patient chart or sign papers. Meanwhile, family members call, and sales representatives come knocking. We often lose valuable time because of excessive interruptions, which, in turn, may lead to an inefficient work environment.

So how can we prevent these interruptions and communicate better with our employees? The following methods have worked for my staff and me.

Please Leave a Message
A personal voice mailbox is an inexpensive and effective method of lessening office interruptions for you and your staff. Voice mailboxes eliminate those paper phone messages that pile up on our desks. In addition, office staff will not have to take time away from their work to answer personal phone calls that can be sent to their voice mailboxes.

Although voice mailboxes may eliminate interruptions, employees should be required to listen to their messages a few times a day to ensure they receive urgent messages.

Paging Dr. ...
Sometimes my voice mailbox is not good enough if a patient wants to speak with me immediately about an urgent situation. Also, I sometimes would rather accept a telephone call that will take only a few seconds when it arrives so that responding to a voicemail message is one less thing I have to worry about later in the day. However, my employees typically do not want to barge into the exam room to tell me I have a call.

My solution to this problem was a paging system. Now, I can be paged wherever I am in the office. I suggest that you inform your staff of acceptable interruption situations (e.g., specific telephone calls) so that they dont interrupt you for something thats unimportant. Paging systems also help locate technicians when you need them.

Youve Got Mail!
Throughout the workday, issues arise that need to be addressed with my staff. E-mail is one of the easiest ways to communicate with my staff without directly interrupting them. So, all my employees have an e-mail account.

E-mail also saves time because I can send one message to my entire staff, if warranted. Office staff can also use e-mail to communicate with each other. Keep in mind, though, that e-mail is only useful if employees are required to access their account a few times each day.

Return to Sender
Even in the digital and electronic age, paper still plays a role. We often have to review and sign papers, files or charts. We would be interrupted frequently if our secretaries approached us every time an item required a signature. And, these items shouldnt be left on our desks because they will probably get lost in piles.

An interoffice mailbox system was my solution to this problem. My offices mailbox system is set up in a central location in the office (i.e., a place that all employees pass by). A workstation with a writing area is located next to the mailboxes so that I can sign documents without leaving the mailboxes. When I am finished, I place the documents in the appropriate employees mailbox.

Communication Goes High-Tech

Here are two examples of systems that might help you improve internal communications:

The Comlite LCS 4000. This light-signaling system allows you to send and receive messages quietly and discreetly as well as alert you to patient arrivals and important phone calls. Push a button once and a solid light comes on. Push it twice and you get a flashing light. A chime discreetly alerts you to an incoming message.

The LCS 4000 plugs into any electrical outlet to allow wireless messaging throughout your entire office. Its easy to install and set up, and is completely customizable to meet your specific needs. Call 1-800-426-5271, or go to

Varitronics Call Systems. This company offers several options, including the Varitronics Personnel Pager System, which sends coded messages to employees anywhere in the building.

Theres also the CS2000 Interoffice Communication System, designed to maximize patient traffic flow and communications. By installing CS2000 units in your exam rooms and at other key locations throughout the office, you can communicate where the doctors, techs and patients are located. For information on these and other systems, call 1-800-345-1244, or go to

Please Take One
Save a tree by not distributing one announcement to each employees mailbox. Instead, place the announcement on a bulletin board. Then watch as employees have fun posting jokes and recipes that will eventually cover your announcement. When that happened, I just let them have that bulletin board for their items and added a second business only bulletin board. Because both boards may become cluttered quickly, appoint an employee to clear the bulletin boards on a regular basis.

Green Means Go
Have you ever walked out of an exam room and had no idea which room to enter next? One way to solve this problem is to ask your staff where to go, but this means you must find and interrupt them. So, I looked into an electronic lighting system, which would tell me the status of each examination room.

Great idea, but thanks to my open building layout, I was able to create my own. We installed color-coded plastic flags at the top of each exam room door. One flag color represents that a patient is waiting in a room. Another color represents which occupied room should be entered first. A third represents that a technician is present.

This isnt practical for all offices, so see the box below for more on electronic systems.

Update Opticians
I would like to be able to talk to my opticians about my patients needs after each appointment. However, I rarely had time to talk to them. And, when I did, the opticians were busy.

My friends at the Northeastern Eye Institute in Scranton, Pa., had a great idea that they implemented. The doctors briefly record suggestions or instructions regarding a patient on a small digital recorder, which a technician then gives to an optician. In turn, the optician can listen to the doctors recommendations and provide patients with individualized help.

To enforce procedures for the above methods and provide my staff with updates on office issues, such as new equipment or new procedures, I hold regular staff meetings. During these meetings, I encourage my staff to offer suggestions or feedback on procedures. In my office, monthly meetings are sufficient because of the above methods we have implemented.

Still, despite the procedures I have implemented, interruptions will occasionally occur. However, these methods have helped me reduce the number of interruptions. They have also improved communication between my staff and me, and among my staff.

Most methods and procedures are easy and cost-effective, and can lead to an efficiently managed office. By following the above suggestions, you and your employees can find the comforts of an efficient workplace, including the ability to perform duties in a routine and organized manner.

 Dr. Cole is in private practice in Bridgeton, N.J., and is an assistant professor at Pennsylvania College of Optometry.

Vol. No: 141:12Issue: 12/15/04