Patient Experience

Does Your Practice Need a Patient Counselor?

By Suzanne LaKamp, OD, FAAO

Jan. 31, 2018

When prescribing treatment plans to patients, we try to fully educate them. However, many patients need more help in understanding the full implications of a professional recommendation. A patient counselor, also called a patient coordinator, can help in reinforcing our professional recommendation and increasing compliance.

Many practices use an optician, or another existing staff member, to fulfill this role, but we find that having an employee dedicated to leading a patient through the experience in our office, and helping coordinate their care, is a benefit to both the patient, and to us.

An employee, who is focused on coordinating patient care, rather than on another function, like eyewear sales, can be trained more fully to help educate patients about the procedures you co-manage, such as LASIK and cataract surgery, and other medical eyecare treatments. They can let patients know what to expect, and help you educate them about the importance of adhering to your treatment plan.

I practice in a surgical practice with three MDs and two ODs. We have two patient counselors. The senior counselor has been with the practice seven years. The junior counselor has been with the practice five years, with three of those years as a technician, and the last two as a counselor.

Responsibilities for both counselors include building a trusting, positive relationship with the patient, patient education about procedures, surgical scheduling, financing and serving as patient liaison to the doctor. Patients may reach out directly to the doctor, but also may talk with a counselor if a doctor is unavailable at the time.

The counselor is a main point person for the patient. Counselors educate, build relationships and create an overall enjoyable experience. Counselors can help convert patients to procedures or surgeries, or just demonstrate how valued the patient experience is to the practice.

We ensure the patient is comfortable with the entire process, and sees the practice as truly invested in them as a person, not just the sale. The patient will get counselor phone numbers and e-mail for any questions or concerns that arise.

Dr. LaKamp with one of her practice’s patient counselors, Melissa Emerson. Dr. LaKamp says that a staff member devoted to coordinating patient care is especially useful in practices that do a lot of co-management of surgeries like LASIK and cataracts.

Full-Time Position
The senior counselor is a full-time position because scheduling patients directly affects the financial health of the practice, and it is important to keep the exam rooms and surgical clinic full. Patient conversion to surgery is necessary for a successful refractive surgery clinic like ours. Commission is based on how many patients, whom the counselor works with, end up having a surgery with one of the doctors in our practice.

The junior counselor, who is salaried, has the same responsibilities as the other counselor, but works mostly with patients who previously had surgery. She may schedule recommended enhancements, for instance. She is cross-trained as a patient technician, and works directly with some of these patients when necessary for staffing.

Our senior counselor has an extensive background in sales, including retail and the medical field. His years of experience taught him how to work with patients from many backgrounds, and well as how to incorporate different sales techniques. The role of the counselor is primarily to educate the patient, facilitate smooth scheduling, discuss financing, but also to convert good surgical candidates into patients.

The counselors meet with each other daily. They also have meetings with the CEO, marketing team, and will attend practice strategy meetings, which include upper management. The doctors and counselors are in constant communication.

Meets with New Patients
The senior counselor encounters the majority of new patients to the practice. After the patient’s full examination, the surgeon will recommend whether a patient is a candidate for a procedure. The surgeon is then free to see the next patient, and keep the clinic full. The counselor can schedule the patient for surgery and post-op appointments, review procedures, discuss expectations for surgery day, address financing, as well as serve as liaison between the patient and doctor.

The junior counselor can meet with new patients if the other counselor is busy or out of the office. She typically encounters patients who previously had surgery and will counsel in-person if time allows (for the practice or the patient), otherwise will call the patient later that day. Both counselors make follow-up calls, e-mails, and send recalls for patients who are either undecided about surgery, or have not made a decision.

Help Educating Patients About Process & Options
A patient who schedules for a refractive consult will have a full eye examination, with special imaging including lens photography, HD analysis for light scatter, and Scheimpflug for the lens clarity. The doctor will evaluate the patient’s eye health, and determine if surgery is recommended at that time.

The surgeons have a variety of lens options available, including premium IOLs, as well as other laser vision correction to offer the patient. If cataract surgery, or refractive lens exchange, as we call it, is recommended, a patient is then taken to the counselor in a consultation room. The counselor discusses the surgery day, schedules surgery and post-op appointments, provides the prescriptions the doctor has signed, provides handouts and written pre-op instructions, and offers financing options. The counselor is the last stop for the patient in the office.

Efficiently Use Patient Counselor’s Time
For years, the patient counselor used to sit in on patient exams with the doctor. When the exam was finished, the doctor would give the recommendations and then move on to the next patient exam.  The counselor would take the patient to a consultation room, freeing the exam lane, to further discuss the surgical recommendation. This process was not an efficient use of the counselor’s time, often not leaving time later in the day for follow-up phone calls and e-mails, or working on patient leads. Patients also found the exam room too full with an extra person.

The new system does not require a counselor in the room during the examination. The surgeon’s recommendations are written into a plan, which is sent electronically to the counselor. The scribe brings the patient to the consultation room, and the counselor can discuss the surgical plan in more detail with the patient.

Keeping Tabs on Patient
Counselors review notes from the call center we use about communications with the patient, plans established by the OD or MD, and will also reach out to the OD or MD if a patient has additional clinical questions or concerns that a doctor should address. The counselor can schedule the patient for a follow-up into the dry eye clinic with the OD, if the MD recommends treatment prior to surgery.

 

Suzanne LaKamp, OD, FAAO, is an associate at Durrie Vision in Overland Park, Kan. To contact: dr.suzanne.lakamp@gmail.com

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