By Cheryl G. Murphy, OD
Increasingly, patients seek health information online--challenging you as the primary information provider about eye health. Here are tips for listening to your patients' needs and reinforcing your authority by answering their questions thoroughly.
We have all experienced it: The patient comes in, sits in our exam chair and whips out printer pages full of symptoms they have Googled. "I saw a bump on my eye, and a web site said it's cancerous!" Or, maybe: "Dr. Murphy, I think my glasses prescription might be off because I've been getting a lot of headaches, but when I Googled 'headaches and eyes,’ I got worried!"
Tips on Doctor-Patient
Ask questions. Ask patients if they have any questions at the end of every exam, and after each patient encounter.
Make eye contact. Face patients when you ask if they have any questions. Do not have your head down, writing in their chart, or your back turned typing up the assessment and plan on their EHR.
Provide contact info. Tell patients how they can contact you if they have any questions after they get home. Get a stamper with your professional e-mail address, or print it on your business cards so you won’t have to write it out every time.
Blog. Add your blog address to your business cards, as well, and encourage people to go there to read more about their eye health, and to e-mail you questions.
Direct patients to info. Have articles on your blog neatly organized into different categories so you can direct patients to exactly what they need.
Make it easy to ask. Provide question cards in the waiting room. Leave index cards out, or have staff hand them out to patients. Some patients are shy about asking questions in person. Allowing them to drop questions into a suggestion box relieves that embarrassment.
Encourage asking. Have staff tell patients to use those cards to ask anything they have ever wondered about the eye or the science of vision. Maybe even give out a little (unexpected) prize for asking questions or a small discount for their participation.
Provide answers. Answer written questions in the box once a week during down time in the office.
Accommodate. Ask patients to leave their preferred method of contact to receive additional information from you.
Chit chat. Make conversation with your patients, and don’t be afraid to tell them a little bit about yourself too--maybe that you love skiing or that you are trying to learn how to cook, or the ages of your children. Informal conversations with patients will set them at ease with you, making it more likely they will share their questions with you, instead of a search engine.
Encourage always. Encourage patients to ask you questions and contact you throughout the year, not just around the time of their exam. Show that you can be an excellent resource for eye-health information, and that you care about them.
Sometimes it's hard to fight that sneaking suspicion that the only reason a patient has asked for the proper spelling of a condition is so they can go home and type the diagnosis into their search engine of choice later. Do they feel there is something they are not getting from you, which makes them feel they need a virtual second opinion? Do you ever wonder why they don't just ask us more about their conditions, or come to us first with their symptoms before running to the computer?
You May Be Discouraging Patient Questions
It may just be human nature for patients to doubt the information you give them, or it could be that you are unintentionally giving patients the impression that you do not have time or interest for their questions. When you discuss your refraction or diagnosis with patients, do you find yourself talking more than listening? As doctors, we have a duty to educate patients, but we also have a duty to listen to their questions, and, when necessary, to draw those questions out of them.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Consider adding more opportunities for conversation, rather than a speech, to interact with patients. When patients first sit in your exam chair, begin by asking them general questions, such as: "How are your eyes feeling? Are you able to see everything you need to throughout the day, at work, at home and at play? Do you ever feel uncomfortable with your eyes visually or physically?"
It is not enough to ask these questions, and other open-ended questions, on the intake form you hand patients when they register at your front desk. As the doctor, you need to elicit open-ended questions about eye and vision comfort when the patient is face-to-face with you, in your exam chair.
After the examination, and explanation to patients of your refraction or diagnosis, ask the patient if they understood everything you explained to them, and go beyond that initial question. You might also ask, for example, their feelings about your prescription or treatment plan. By asking about their comfort level with your treatment plan, you might find that it is not realistic for their lifestyle. You could find that the cleaning and replacement regimen for their contact lenses doesn't work for them, and that they need daily disposable lenses, or that they are not able to remember, on a long-term basis, to put drops in their eyes twice a day--or that they cannot afford the eyedrops or contact lenses solution you prescribed.
Direct Them to You--Not Google--Online
Asking more open-ended questions during exams is a great start, but many patients will still want additional information--answers to questions they think of on the drive home from your office that they wished they had asked--so let them know you are available online. One idea is to create sections on your web site for commonly asked questions, along with an e-mail button they can click on to send your office their question. To quench your patients' thirst for information, provide basic information about all of the services and treatments you provide. For instance, in your optical section, provide information about how often patients need to have their prescriptions updated, and in the section of your site detailing eye conditions like glaucoma, provide information and links to other sites that explain what the disease is and a few of the different treatment options. Your contact lenses section could provide commonly asked questions about the different types of contact lenses available, the maintenance regimens for each, the cost and what kind of patient each kind of contact lenses would be best for.
Create a Doctor's Blog
Along with a web site and Facebook page, let your voice as an eye health authority be heard through your own blog. Many sites, like Wordpress, offer blog platforms free of charge. There also is no cost for Twitter, so you will easily be able to publicize each of your blog posts. You can post signs in your office, and on your business card, for patients to follow you on Twitter, where they will receive alerts about your latest blogs. You can encourage patients to go to your blog for more information on a subject after you have finished explaining it in the office. Post the latest eye health-related medical news; show patients you are passionate about your profession with patient success stories (childhood refractions that made a world of difference, or your success at catching a health issue like diabetes). Your own blog can provide yet another medium for patients to get an education from you, rather than a search engine, on basic eye conditions and illnesses.
You still have to maintain proper patient privacy rights and not disclose personal medical information online, so adopt a style in which you speak broadly on topics without divulging information that could be traced back to a patient. You can use the blog to continue the conversations that start on your web site about commonly asked questions that you receive in the office, such as "What is a cataract?" or "Why is it necessary to have a yearly contact lens re-evaluation?" Openly accept requests for specific topics. After you write enough articles, and maybe do a little search engine optimizing, you may find that YOU are now the one who people are finding in their Google search results.
Direct Patients to Reputable Sources
In the best case scenario, patients will turn to you for information most of the time, but some patients will always feel the need to double-check with another source. You can fulfill that need by providing a list on your site, as well as in printed materials in your office, of accurate and reputable secondary sources of information online.
By soliciting and drawing out your patients' questions during the exam, and providing online support and dependable secondary information to patients, you can keep them from forming eye health misconceptions. You can establish a relationship of trust with them as the primary source of information about their eyes.
Some Reputable Eye Health Information Sites
All About Vision
Think About Your Eyes
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Cheryl G. Murphy, OD, practices at an independent optometric practice in Holbrook, NY. To contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org.