Americans may be wary about their safety as stay-at-home orders expire and the country reopens, albeit to a new normal, polls say. For doctors of optometry, that means communication can be key in reengaging patients.
"Patients are adjusting to the 'new normal,' just as doctors and staff are, and they have a lot of questions and uncertainty," AOA President Barbara L. Horn, O.D., says. "We need to reinforce the trust patients have in doctors of optometry and give them the confidence that we are doing everything we can to protect everyone's health and safety by communicating clearly."
"Communication with patients is always important, but absolutely critical right now," says Amber Dunn, O.D, who reopened her practice in Oregon on May 1 to patients for routine care.
It's critical from a scheduling standpoint and to welcoming patients back, she says. Her first words to returning patients: How are you?
Communicating with patients
The AOA's new Optometry Practice Reactivation Preparedness Guide notes the importance of messaging to patients. Among its recommendations:
- Reach out to them during this difficult time to see how they are doing through all relevant communications channels (e.g., website, social media, email, direct mail, advertising).
- Update your website, social media channels and phone voicemail to communicate that your office is open for eye health and vision care and use the opportunity to reinforce the importance of the care you deliver and how you are taking steps to protect patient and staff health and safety.
- Remind your patients, when relevant, you are open for essential routine and urgent care, emergencies, telehealth consultations, questions and concerns. Ensure that all communications reinforce your practice safety protocols.
- Based on expectations for a return to routine care, begin booking routine appointments for an anticipated day one re-activation and beyond (be sure to make patients aware there remains a chance the limited schedule order may not be lifted).
- Contact and check up on your complex patients.
Read more in the optometry practice reactivation preparedness guidance.
Dr. Dunn's safety efforts in her practice have taken on more prominence in communications with her patients, given the highly contagious coronavirus.
"We're letting them know we are taking precautions to ensure patients, as well as staff, are safe," Dr. Dunn says. "We are asking patients to fill out a COVID-wellness form prior to coming in. We have also converted all of our paperwork to electronic and we send it to the patients in advance. We have posters on the front door letting them know we are disinfecting between patients and also taking their temperature and sanitizing their hands as they come in.
"Some people might be concerned about coming in and some may not be," she says. "If they say, 'we're still not ready' then we say we understand, we're putting you on the list and will be contacting you soon. We're taking the extra step to let them know we understand if they're scared and it's OK if they won't want to come in yet. We don't want to shame anybody for being wary."
How much is too much information?
Regardless, doctors of optometry and their staffs should be prepared for patients who want to know more about safety protocols including how a practice sanitizes its office between patient visits.
Few if any of Dr. Dunn's patients, by the way, have asked for details.
"Our message is short and simple," she says. "For the patients who are ready to get back to normal, they're great with the message. But the message also leaves the opportunity for those patients who want to know more to ask. If they ask, I tell them everything we're doing. As much information as they want, to satisfy their needs."
Christopher Wolfe, O.D., who practices in Nebraska, agrees. Dr. Wolfe's practice ramped up to routine care May 4.
"I'm not overwhelming my patients with our safety protocols," says Dr. Wolfe, who chairs the AOA's State Government Relations Committee. "I am just letting them know we are taking their safety as our highest priority and we have a few things posted. We are also wearing masks and face shields when need be. Now, if a patient asks, we will give them all the details but I am of the mind that sometimes too many details can make a patient anxious."
Explaining changes to children
Glen Steele, O.D., professor of pediatric optometry at Sothern College of Optometry, Memphis, Tennessee, says communicating with young patients ahead of time and early in a visit can ease any of their anxiety.
Pre-pandemic, Dr. Steele says, neither patients nor doctors generally wore masks and gloves during eye examinations.
"However, with children now having been limited in where they go, it might be unusual for them to see providers in masks," Dr. Steele says. "It might be a bit overwhelming."
To ease their fears, parents and doctors of optometry might make wearing a mask a game or at least make young patients familiar with them before the visit. And older children? "Tell them why wearing a mask is necessary to keep everyone safe from getting sick," Dr. Steele says.
Above and beyond
As the pandemic stretched from weeks into months, Dr. Dunn showed her patients how much they were missed, She and staff wrote handwritten letters to patients, wishing them well and letting them know the practice was there if they needed anything.
To families, she delivered bags of books and other activities to entertain the kids. She also personally delivered glasses and contact lenses to homes.
"To be honest, this has brought my patients closer to me," Dr. Dunn says. "They really want to know how I am doing and how the business is doing. They want to know how they can support me. On the flip side, I make sure that when the patient shows up, the first thing I ask, prior to any testing, is 'how are you?' I let them talk to me about life and their changes prior to the exam."
Even if you’re choosing to disengage, today’s politics have a way of finding you. What are the ground rules for approaching political debates in the practice?
Under new rules for the 21st Century Cures Act, doctors of optometry will need to prepare for changes going into effect April 5. Doctors should check in with their health IT vendor in order to make sure they meet the new requirements.