By Jennifer L. Stewart, OD
August 5, 2020
The pandemic has required our practices to implement new safety protocols, including social distancing and enhanced sterilization, that are essential, but also can negatively impact efficiency and profitability. Here is how my practice is keeping patients and staff safe while maintaining a smooth patient flow and strong per-patient revenue.
Back to Our Normal Patient Schedule
We have been back to our pre-pandemic patient schedule since the middle of June. We see 3-6 patients an hour, depending on how many doctors are in that day. We started by having only one doctor per day, on a reduced schedule. We gradually increased that, and then slowly added two-doctor days.
Patients Confirmed Day Before
Patients are confirmed the day before by phone in addition to our normal confirmation e-mails and texts (one month prior and two days prior). We have patients come right to the office, but stop before entering. We check temperature and ask a series of questions to gauge possible symptoms or exposure to COVID-19. This is done for every patient entering the office, whether for an exam, follow-up or optical appointment.
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Patients are taken directly in for pretesting, or seated at a dispensing table. We are minimizing the use of our reception area at this time. Following a mandate in our state of Connecticut, masks are worn by all patients, staff and doctors at all times while in the office. After the exam, the entire room is disinfected by the technician. Any frames that were tried on, as well as the dispensing table that was used, are thoroughly disinfected by the optician. Every counter in the office is wiped down periodically throughout the day, and even pens are wiped down after use.
Developing Protocols & Planning How It Would Work
We spent weeks devising our protocols and planning. I was fortunate to reopen 3-4 weeks after most offices had opened in other parts of the state, so I was able to learn from other doctors and practices about what worked and what didn’t. We had weekly phone calls with our staff before opening, and a full day of training before reopening.
As with anything, we have had to make changes and adaptations as situations arise, but we have shared with our staff that our overall goal is to keep patients, staff and doctors safe. By slowly increasing our patient schedule, we were able to become more efficient with the new sanitation processes, and I feel as though we have found our rhythm. We have received numerous compliments from patients about how safe they feel, how clean the office is and how impressed they were to see such thorough protocols in place.
Training Staff to Ensure Safety & Efficiency–and Patient Comfort
My practice partner and I gave our employees the protocols we had devised based on our research, webinars and speaking to other practices. We gave them the reasons we were doing everything- I felt this helped them put the new protocols into context, versus just adding yet another task to their already-full plate. We explained to our employees that we want them to feel safe at work, and by adding these cleaning and screening protocols, we are doing our best to keep sick patients out and keep the office safe.
As situations arose, I wanted to know about push-back from patients, and how we could do better. How can we make sure we are communicating properly with our patients? We spent a lot of time talking about the psychology of patients, especially during the first few weeks. Everyone, including the doctors and staff, were nervous about how patients would receive the new protocols, so I wanted our employees to help put patients at ease.
As I told my front desk staff, “If you are three minutes behind schedule because you took extra time with a nervous patient, I will always be fine with that!” My advice to my staff was to “breathe, smile and realize patients may be very nervous walking through that door. Let’s put them all at ease and have a great day.”
Per-Patient Revenue Gaining Strength
We have noticed, as I have also heard from other practitioners, that our per-patient revenue is equal to, or higher, than what it was prior to the shutdown. Practices I have shared experiences with frequently reported “Best month ever” numbers for June 2020, often on a much lighter patient schedule.
This is very interesting. By slowing down and seeing fewer patients per hour, we are able to spend more time with each patient (even five minutes!). Those extra few minutes can be used for second-pair sales, extra diagnostic testing discussion (such as LipiFlow), myopia management discussion or upgrading to a single-use contact lenses. Taking this extra time to really educate the patient and spend time crafting a personalized approach seems to be impacting most practices positively.
Providing Premium Products & Services
We will continue our strategy of providing premium services and premium products. We treat every patient encounter with respect, care and time. We use single-use lenses in our practice for almost all patients (85-90 percent), which I feel is even more important in this time of added concern about health and cleanliness.
We are proactive in prescribing in the exam room and prescribing multiple pairs. Nothing for us has changed since we returned in this respect – it is just a continued reminder to provide our patients with the best. I spent a lot of time during the shutdown on webinars and reading. It was a great time to reflect and remind myself what I want to accomplish in the exam room.
One new product that we will be adding based on its recent release (not necessarily due to COVID) is MiSight from CooperVision. I was able to become certified as a MiSight provider during the shutdown, and I look forward to adding myopia management to our practice.
Jennifer Stewart, OD, is a partner in Norwalk Eye Care in Norwalk, Conn. She also is founder and COO of Performance 20/20, a sports vision training center in Stamford, Conn. To contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org