Doctor Patient Relations

Doctor-Patient Communication Starters: Keys to Stellar Service

By April L. Jasper, OD, FAAO

Asking the right questions of patients begins with a doctor who knows how to start the conversation–often the first step in providing stellar service.

Successful ODs don’t have much time, and we often are reluctant to add to chair time. However, I have discovered there is great value in taking a few extra minutes to meaningfully converse with your patients. Finding out who your patients are, and asking questions rather than guessing their needs, drives a thriving practice. Here is how I start the conversation and keep it going with patients.

Communication Begins Before the Patient Arrives in the Office

The patient experience in the office begins with your practice web site, or in some cases, their phone call to book an appointment. It is important that our web site is a reflection of our practice because this is in many cases our first form of communication with our patient. One of the most important things you can do with your web site is to make certain your phone number is prominently displayed on every page. When the patent then calls the office we must be ready for the communication we have then. First, train the receptionist to tell the patient their name. Then have the receptionist thank them for calling and ask if they can get the patient’s name. Then, have your receptionist continue the phone conversation using their name as frequently as possible and natural. The receptionist should then ask the patient if they will be using insurance and for the insurance information and tell them why your eye exam is different. Don’t forget to direct your patients to your web site where they can fill out any necessary forms for their visit and highlight at that time any new products that you want them to take an interest in.

Train Staff on Attentive Service in Reception Area

When the patient enters the office we greet them immediately. We try to keep the answering of the phones away from the front desk whenever possible so the staff are ready to make a good first impression. We welcome patients to the office and have their charts ready when they arrive so all we then need is their photo which is taken at the desk and their insurance cards, HIPAA signatures and co-pays.

Take Time to Properly Greet Patient in Exam Room

Many people do not realize that communication is not all about the words we use, although the words we use are tremendously important. Communication is also about body language and tone of voice. When I bought my independent practice 10.5 years ago, 50 percent of my patient base spoke Spanish-only and I didn’t know any Spanish. I found quickly that I was able to establish rapport with my patients through an interpreter simply by my tone of voice and actions such as hand shaking and location. I would sit in proximity to them in the room and lean toward them to show interest in what they were saying.

The first thing I do when I enter the room with the patient is to introduce myself and welcome them to the office and thank them for choosing us to take care of them. I have family photos on the walls in each exam room and I find one of the first things the patients say is how much they love the photos. We take a moment to talk about family and life and already have a bond established.

By the time the patient enters the exam room most of the detailed questioning is done, but I still ask in-depth questions because patients will often tell the doctor what they won’t tell the staff.

My first question to them following introductory conversation is “how can I help you today?” The most important form of communication I have learned is what comes next and that is that I stop, lean forward slightly and listen without interrupting the patient. In studies that have been done on doctor-patient communication it has been shown that patients rate their doctor’s skill level and their satisfaction with the exam significantly higher when the doctor listens to the patient’s chief complaint without interruption. It is also a big factor in prevention of lawsuits.

Bridge Conversation to Optical Shop

Every patient leaves the exam room with my prescription for eyeglasses with AR, Transitions and thinner, lighter-weight lenses. They have all been told by me they also need sunglasses, and that contacts are also an option (if they are not already contact lens wearers), as well. When I finish my exam I then page my staff to the exam room and I give this instruction to the patient in front of my staff. The conversation in the optical is then much easier because the doctor prescribed it.

Same Communication Principles Apply to Child Patients

Just because a patient is a child doesn’t mean you don’t have to do all of the above steps with both them, as well as their parents. They still need to be engaged in conversation in the exam room. For instance, you should ask them about work–in their case school–and hobbies, which usually means extracurricular activities like sports. Just as you would ask an adult about their eyecare needs in the office, you want to learn whether any eyecare needs are impairing the child’s ability to excel at school. You also would want to ask how they are doing at their favorite sports to determine whether contact lenses or sports eyewear is needed.

I will also talk to the parent, however the child needs to have you establish that relationship and bond of trust with them directly, and you cannot accomplish this by talking about them to the parent as if they are not in the room.

Communicate After Visit, Too

Many times I send personal thank-you cards to my patients or personal phone calls. I also send every patient a thank-you e-mail with a request to fill out a survey to let us know how we are doing. After all is said and done, I want to know if we have met the needs they came to us to address.

Take Time to Communicate: Action Plan

Welcome the patient. When the patient schedules an appointment, make sure the person who greets them is friendly and welcoming and asks for all relevant information including reason for visit, current eyewear and contact lens needs and insurance details.

Ask the patient how you can help them. After entering the exam room and saying hello and chatting briefly, do not immediately launch into your own presentation. Instead ask the patient how you can best serve them that day–what they have come to you to address.

Do not interrupt the patient while they answer. Doctors are authorities on healthcare, but that doesn’t mean your patient doesn’t have equally important information to impart. Be sure to not just ask questions, but to listen carefully and patiently while the patient explains her concerns or needs.

Thank them for choosing you. It always shocks them that you care that they chose your practice over another. You should thank them before they leave the office, and it also helps to send a thank-you note after the visit so they remember the caring tone of your office and keep you in mind for their next eyecare need.

Related ROB Articles
Show Patients the Added Value of Your Practice

Make the Call: Build a Relationship with Patients Built on Trust

A Grandfather’s Prescription for Excellence in Healthcare: Get to Know Your Patients

April L. Jasper, OD, FAAO, is the owner of Advanced Eyecare Specialists in West Palm Beach, Fla. To contact her:

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