Using Practice Consultants to Your Best Advantage

by Corporate Relations and Business Strategy Staff

One of the important tasks for psychologists conducting the “business of practice” is choosing and using consultants wisely. Whether dealing with an accountant, a computer expert, an attorney or a management consultant, the following tips can help you make the best use of consultants.

  • Set clear goals. Define the purpose and scope of the assignment, the outcome you expect, your available budget and the time frame for the project. Having a clear understanding of how the project will benefit your practice will help you effectively communicate your needs and select the right person for the job.

  • Develop a pool of prospects. Use your contacts for references and leads. Check with friends and colleagues who have sought similar assistance, your state or local psychological association and local chapters of professional associations representing the type of consultant you need.

  • Interview several candidates. Find out how much health care experience they have and whether they are familiar with psychology practice. Match the qualifications of the consultant with your business needs. Be wary of consultants who claim they do all types of consulting equally well.

  • Look for “goodness of fit.” Select someone with whom you seem both personally and philosophically compatible. For example, avoid a consultant who takes more financial risks than you are comfortable with or someone who appears insensitive to your level of business expertise. If you are working with a consulting firm, be sure to meet the actual person who will do the job.

  • Ask for and check references. Ask the candidate for two or three names and contact numbers for former clients with projects similar to yours. In addition to the quality of the consultant’s work, consider his or her reputation with clients and history of availability, follow-through and ability to understand and meet a client’s needs.

  • Brief the consultant adequately. Do your homework before meeting with the consultant. Gather all the data you think he or she might find useful. Define your request for assistance as clearly as possible for the consultant and concisely summarize the goals you set for the project. If you are working with a group, be sure everyone agrees on both the project goals and the role of the consultant.

  • Create a written agreement. A contract should include information about the scope of the project, responsibilities of all parties, time frame for the job, ownership of data and materials produced, methods and frequency of reporting, and procedures for conflict resolution. The written agreement should also establish the fee and the method of computing it.

Common fee arrangements include fixed-price and time-and-expense approaches. A fixed-price arrangement tends to be suitable for circumscribed projects because you know exactly what you will pay, but it can be problematic if unexpected developments arise or if you want to make midcourse changes to the project. A time-and-expense approach often is better suited to open-ended projects and to those projects whose course is difficult to predict. If you use a time-and-expense arrangement, be sure to build a “not-to-exceed price” into the contract to keep you from going over budget. Consultants may bill their time hourly, or by half and whole days.

  • Watch your time. Promptly provide requested information and materials and schedule meetings thoughtfully. In addition to being respectful of the consultant’s time, careful planning can save you money. Do as much business by phone and email as possible.

  • Maintain regular communication. When you engage a consultant for a specific project, such as recommending a computer system for the practice, require the consultant to document the work performed through regular written progress reports. These periodic reports along with a final report with recommendations from the consultant should be among the minimum requirements for documentation. Reciprocal communication throughout the project will reduce the chance of unpleasant surprises at the end.

  • Make informed decisions. You hired the consultant for an outside opinion and a particular expertise. Listen with an open mind, but be sure you make the final decisions once the consultant has identified various options and recommended a particular approach. To help you choose the best solutions, use your ongoing discussions with the consultant as an opportunity to become well informed.

Importantly, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires practitioners covered by this law to have an appropriate contract with “business associates” as defined under HIPAA.

HIPAA Q&A

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