An Interview with Stephanie Collins, CEO of Austin Retina Associates

An Interview with Stephanie Collins, CEO of Austin Retina Associates

Surgimate: We’re very excited to have a top-tier CEO join us today. Stephanie Collins is the CEO at Austin Retina in the great state of Texas. It’s a real pleasure to have you join us today. Thank you very much, Stephanie. 

Stephanie: Thank you very much for having me. I’m happy to be a part of it.

Surgimate: Great. So, firstly, tell me a little bit about your personal journey to becoming CEO at Austin Retina. 

Stephanie: I started at Austin Retina 21 years ago. I was sent to Austin Retina as the file clerk from attempt service after my mandatory 90 days. I was hired on, and I’ve actually worked in every position in the organization except for research. I took over from the previous administrator when she retired after 23 years in 2014, and I became the CEO. 

It’s been an interesting journey. They’re a great organization, super supportive, and very encouraging. I got my undergrad and graduate degrees while I was working there more recently, just in the midst of COVID, and for fun, maybe or supportive of, like, health issues. I have also become a certified health coach and I’m looking forward to sharing that knowledge, as well. 

Surgimate: Wow! So, in the last seven years, you’ve been CEO, you’ve really covered all those different roles. How important is it to have both the clinical experience that you have and also the business and administrative experience in order to be able to really actively play the role that you play as CEO at the practice?

Stephanie Collins's experience at Austin Retina Associates

Stephanie: I do truly believe that anyone can be a leader. You don’t have to have all the background that I have to be a fantastic leader and CEO, I think anybody can do that as long as they’re open to collaborating and being a good listener and supporting, and encouraging their staff. 

I do think that it has benefited me along the way as it is really nice to understand where my staff is coming from. Even though I may not have worked on the front line for many years, I do understand the general sense of their job and what they’re talking about.

And so if they’re excited about implementing a new process in our organization I know what may or may not work or if they’re really frustrated about something I can relate to that I do try to get down and participate on the front lines when I can.

So, in the midst of COVID, I was helping them COVID screen, I would go back to checking in and checking out just so that I can kind of understand what they’re going through. So I think that gives me a little bit of a leg up to support my staff, but I don’t think it’s required to become a great CEO or great leader by any means.

Surgimate: You run a very tight ship at Austin Retina and are you super efficient in everything which you do and everything that you achieve. Could you describe or give us some examples of two or three different things that you feel are critical to ensure that all the operations and all the processes at the practice are run as smoothly as you would hope for them to run?

Austin Retina Associates runs a tight ship

Stephanie: Sure, I think a lot of the success of our practice and being super efficient, really comes from the lean initiative that we did in 2015. Like any retina practice, probably, or any medical practice, the constant worry or complaint from patients about your wait time was a big deal for us. We’re a fantastic practice, and we have great outcomes, we just need to focus on wait time. And so we did this big lean initiative back in 2015 and really what we realized was that we had a huge culture shift while we were going through this lean initiative.

What I mean by that is, while we were able to identify efficiencies and inefficiencies and collaborate with our staff to really become a better practice to provide great care for our patients, we really learned to empower the frontline staff to make those decisions right.

So, we’re not having them do high-level business decisions about the finances or obviously medical decision-making from the physicians, but if it is general operational or the workflow of the practice or how we can provide a better service to our patients we empower them to come up with new ideas and trials and collaborate to get those things done.

So, I think that that has made us just a better practice in general, and to help provide better care. Lean was a huge deal for us, and so we have a multitude of trials that are created by our staff. Sometimes they work or they don’t work.

Sometimes they work for one specific team, so whether that’s the insurance department or the call center or maybe one clinical team, maybe they become universal between the whole organization, but it doesn’t matter as long as they are creating and empowering themselves to come up with all these ideas.

We truly believe in a culture of failure, so encouraging them to step outside their comfort zone and come up with new ideas and these trials try them out worst case scenario we go back to ground zero. We evaluate why or it didn’t work, and we start over right.

If they truly believe in the idea they can tweak it and then kind of go back out, and that allows the physicians to really focus on their patients and what they’re medically trained to do. It also provides a great growth opportunity and team-building for the staff on its own.

Surgimate: I’ve seen lots of groups try to initiate lean programs, and when they communicate messages about these types of initiatives, they sometimes get a little bit lost in translation to the staff. It’s very esoteric and very conceptual. How were you able to ensure the staff understood and owned some of these initiatives?

Austin Retina Associates takes small steps towards improvement

Stephanie: I think in 2015, it was definitely this idea of implementing something new despite initial fears that it would require hour meetings and extra training. But once the staff really started, even within the first few weeks of them trying something simple as putting a flag up to signify that there was a room open and filling that room instead of putting them in the sub-dilating room, they all of a sudden saw improvements in their workflow and the clinical side and the patients were already raving. 

They were saying, “I don’t know what you’re doing differently, but I love it keep it up!” That built this excitement and this momentum.

And then the relationship between the patient and the employee, right, is a two-way, really important connection that seemed to improve. And so there’s just this general excitement in the office, and I think once they got that and everybody was sharing about that they were propelled to keep going.

So there was definitely that original tug of like, “Oh God, you’re making me do something new,” right? But once they started getting that positive feedback they were they were sailing forward. 

For any new idea that we think about now, we begin with a trial. It’s very small baby steps just to move this forward in the right direction. We don’t just jump head in or whatever feed in or whatever you want to say. Like, we don’t just jump in, we tip our toe in and work through all of the concerns and those what-ifs. And the same goes for trials in a group or per department — we see how it goes before we deploy it throughout the organization. 

With lean and all of these things, you need goal setting and metrics to make sure that it is actually working. So, questioning what is the goal of the trial, what are you trying to achieve?