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How to write a policy

By Cheryl Toth, MBA  bio

Written policies have a reputation for being tedious to develop and boring to read. Creating them is often last on a manager’s to-do list. But written policies can do a lot for your practice. They establish ground rules, set expectations, and reduce confusion among your team. Here’s a straightforward framework for writing them.

Before you start…

1. Don’t confuse policy with procedure. A policy is the underlying rule set that defines expected behavior or outcomes. A procedure is a set of step-by-step instructions on how to perform a task. Think of a procedure as the “how” and a policy as the “why.” For example, the procedure for how to set up automated, recurring payments on a credit card is supported by your financial policy which specifies it as an approved payment option for when patients can’t pay their bill all at once.

2. Know what you are writing about. It can be easy to write yourself down a rabbit hole if you aren’t focused on the purpose of the policy. If you are writing a social media policy for employees, stick to addressing the behaviors and actions that are acceptable when using social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Don’t address issues relative to, for example, the practice web site. Sure, it’s an online platform. But it’s not a social media platform and shouldn’t be in the social media policy.

3. Gather input from physicians, staff, and advisors. The writing process will go faster if you talk with physicians and advisors before you start typing. Ask the physicians what they want included and discuss the purpose and details inherent in the policy itself. Example: If the policy is: patients scheduling elective surgery will be asked to pay a pre-surgical deposit, does that mean staff must collect 100% of the patient’s unmet deductible and coinsurance prior to surgery? 50%? Some other amount? May the patient set up a payment plan? Will you offer a patient financing option? Next, ask staff for feedback about how policy-related issues are currently handled, and what is missing or needs clarification. And, contact your attorney or other business advisors when needed. Although you may not need legal advice on a pre-surgical deposit policy, it’s absolutely essential to call counsel when developing human resources policies.

4. Appoint a ‘document owner.’ The document owner is accountable for compiling information, conducting research, sending drafts for review, integrating edits, and maintaining all versions until the document is approved and final. The owner is usually the primary policy writer, but doesn’t have to be. Choose someone who is organized, good at follow through, and able to establish and maintain a consistent filename system.

5. Establish a standard policy format. This ensures that all your policies have a similar look and content, making ongoing writing more efficient. Include:

Policy Name

Summary or General Purpose – One or three sentences is sufficient.

The Policy – Broken down into easy to read clauses.

Version Date(s) – Include in the document footer, and update it for each version.

Approval Date – Include in the document footer.

As you write…

1. Use plain language. You don’t need to know “legalese” to write a policy. Plain language is a writing style that’s clear and concise and uses short sentences and simple words. In most cases, if you write it like you would say it or explain it in a meeting, you are using the principles of plain language. Use this checklist for plain language to assess your policies and documents.

2. Write in active voice. Active voice will instantly improve the readability of the policy. It’s on the plain language checklist for good reason. Learn more about how to use it in this MOM Insight, 3 Tricks that Make Your Business Writing Stronger.

3. Use headers, numbered lists, and bullet lists. Reading a full page of chunky policy paragraphs will lull the reader into dreamland. Break up copy using headers for new sections and create lists where you can.

4. Use spellcheck and grammar check. Enough said.

After you write…

1. Send the policy draft through an internal review. For most practice policies, reviewers should include one or more physicians and at least one staff or supervisor.

Although I prefer writing in Google Docs, when documents require review I download the Doc into Word and ask each reviewer to use Track Changes. It’s the easiest way to review and integrate edits from multiple reviewers.

2. Request final review and physician sign-off. After integrating your internal reviewers’ edits and turning it back them for a “final read,” you’ve got a final draft that’s ready for approval and sign-off. Depending on your decision-making by-laws, send this document to the physicians or executive team for final approval. Put the approval date in the footer.

3. Send the policy for legal review when needed. Ask your attorney for a list of policies he/she recommends undergo legal review. What will likely cost the practice a few hundred bucks in review fees could protect you from implementing policies that leave you at risk. Put the attorney’s approval date in the footer.

4. Review and train staff. A written policy is worth nothing if your team doesn’t know it exists. Distribute and discuss new policies in staff meetings, and be sure everyone is clear on the details.

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