Why (and When) You Should Consider a Virtual Medical Director

Why (and When) You Should Consider a Virtual Medical Director

Striking the right balance between prioritizing quality patient care and managing everyday leadership tasks is pivotal for healthcare organizations. But it’s not always easy. Hospitals and clinics have safety and quality metrics they must report on, and sometimes it’s unclear who’s responsible and whether they have the training and skills to do that type of work.

During my years at Iris, I’ve seen many clinics promote staff members into leadership positions based on seniority rather than on that person having experience in leadership or administration. That’s where leveraging an Iris provider as a virtual medical director for a behavioral health program can be a great move.

Our providers are integrated into the organizations in which they see patients. They know the staff, the patients, and the clinical challenges that the organization faces, but they can also be involved in higher-level discussions and the administrative decision-making and leadership required for clinics to maintain safety and quality reporting.

In this article, I’ll share some of my insights into how leveraging a virtual medical director works, the benefits they can bring to an organization, and how on-site teams can build trust with a virtual medical director.

How leveraging a virtual medical director works

In many places across the country, our providers serve as virtual medical directors as well as behavioral health providers. Generally, the hours are divided so the providers and staff can know which hat is being worn when.

For example, we carve out administrative time with regular meeting cadences to meet with staff and go over things like policy reviews, safety incidences, and quality metrics – and perform supervisory services when needed. That provider will also have clinical hours where they deliver psychiatric services to patients through regular appointments.

It’s important to delineate how the provider uses their hours each day to prevent confusion. There are always a lot of patients to see, so the medical director may not have the time to do the administrative work if it’s not scheduled. Setting goals, having a solid job description and expectations, and protecting time for weekly administrative and leadership meetings are essential to success in the medical director’s role.

How to build trust between an on-site staff and virtual medical director

The way humans interact is really changing. While the gold standard in healthcare has been in-person care, on-site behavioral health services aren’t always available — this became painfully apparent during the pandemic. Not only did clinics and hospitals need more providers to serve the surge of patients seeking behavioral healthcare, they needed new leadership models and staffing structures.

Telemedicine enabled us to serve so many clinics and hospitals around the country, but coming out of the pandemic, we also knew that being an organization that clinics and hospitals could trust to do virtual care well was important. We were able to demonstrate that finding a virtual behavioral health provider who can be a leader and who truly cares about your community and your clinic helps build that trust – even if they’re three or four states away.

At Iris, we’ve found the key to building that trust is open, honest, and transparent communication — it’s at the core of everything we do. We get to know the on-site team members on a first-name basis and become comfortable with each other clinically, professionally, and personally. Our goal is for our virtual behavioral health providers to be as accessible as any on-site provider might be — that’s one of the ways to build trust.

As a provider, I’ve also found making yourself available online, just as you would in person, is helpful for building trust and engagement with an on-site team.

For example, leaving your office door cracked is the universal sign that you’re available to staff when you’re not with a patient. With virtual care, leaving your video on between patients or meetings allows staff to virtually pop in and say “hi” or ask a question related to patient care. So even if you’re on a screen, the on-site staff feel like you’re present. That’s the quality and integrity of the interactions we strive for at Iris.

How to set your virtual medical director up for success

Setting up your medical director for success involves developing clear goals and objectives as well as clear boundaries.

A few questions we’ve found helpful to ask in this process are:

  • How many hours will your medical director need for the administrative function?
  • Who held this role before? What were their challenges? Why did they leave?
  • What are the expectations of this role?
  • What meetings, supervision, and oversight are required in this role?
  • What would success in this role look like to your team?

We’ve helped many organizations develop job descriptions to help them answer these questions as they pertain to their unique clinical workflow and staffing matrix.

For example, a remote medical director might be responsible for working with the Chief Financial Officer or operations team. They might need to put together presentations to demonstrate the safety and quality initiatives your organization is tracking and how your organization responds to – and measures the success of – new initiatives.

Additionally, there are financial metrics, quality reports, coding, and all sorts of things a virtual medical director is regularly reviewing.

Breaking down the responsibilities of a virtual medical director

A medical director’s role is really focused on directing the clinical delivery of care and the quality, safety, and integrity of that care so patients get the help they need and providers get the support they need. This can be done through virtual leadership just as easily as through traditional on-site leadership.

In my experience, supporting teams of providers – including doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, and therapists –is very meaningful whether it is done in person or virtually.

Medical directors can be a sounding board for providers to bounce ideas off of as well as a resource for dealing with challenging clinical cases. Behavioral health patients can have high levels of acuity and sometimes have needs that providers can’t meet, so supporting colleagues and staff in their efforts to deal with dissatisfied patients can be very helpful.

Again, such support can be offered virtually by a medical director just as it might be done in person.

Where Iris Telehealth fits in

By working with a virtual care provider like Iris, your organization has a larger pool of providers to draw from. Whether you have a small office or a large clinic that needs help finding a medical director, we can help you find one that your staff and patients will enjoy working with.

If you’d like to learn more about our experience matching organizations with a virtual medical director, be sure to read through our case study from Chesapeake Integrated Behavioral Healthcare in Virginia. You can read the full piece here.

If you‘d like to talk to someone about potentially hiring a medical director, be sure to contact us today. We’d be happy to talk through the process and learn more about your needs.

Dr. Tom Milam manages our team of clinicians and guides them in telemedicine and industry best practices. He received his undergraduate degree from WVU in Anthropology, graduating summa cum laude, and received his M.D. from the University of Virginia. His residency training in psychiatry took place at Duke and UVA. Dr. Milam has served in a leadership role throughout his psychiatric career and spearheaded the telepsychiatry initiative at his previous hospital.

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