Communication is Key in the Optical

When practitioners get involved in communicating about their optical, it’s likely to build trust between them and their patients.

Communication plays a critical role in optical success. Consider the reasons consumers in general DON’T make a purchase: 

  • Confusion over what the product/service is and why they need it.
  • Status quo bias — we’re slow to change when we’re comfortable with our current state. Patients will often say, “My current eyewear isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough.” 
  • Risk aversion — this is probably the biggest reason consumers don’t make a purchase. As consumers, we want assurance that what we’re spending our money on will deliver on its promises. 

An optometrist’s or optician’s ability to educate patients about eyewear products in a simple way that’s easily understood by the patient is critical to getting the patient’s buy-in. Couple that with moving people out of their comfort zone by communicating how the product will improve their life (or what they stand to lose by not investing in the product), and “prove” to the patient the value of the product. 

The Doctor’s Role in Communication
Some doctors avoid discussing anything optical related. I believe one of the main reasons is that the optical is viewed as “retail” and doctors don’t want to appear “sales-y.” The problem with this approach is that it forces the optician to be a great salesperson. Some are, but some aren’t, and most practices do not provide much (if any) sales training for their opticians. 

Our industry (and the patients we care for) would be better served to think of the optical less as retail and more as a pharmacy where prescriptions are filled by optical pharmacists. The medicine includes the lenses, lens design, coatings, lens treatments, etc. There is a clear distinction between the role of the optometrist and the optician. ODs don’t need or want to spend a lot of time with patients discussing optical matters, but avoiding communication around anything optical isn’t good for business or patient care either. Patients trust their doctors and want your input — don’t deprive them of that. Not to mention that you’ll make your optician’s job much easier when the patient has already bought in. 

Breaking Down the Basics of Optical Communication
Many doctors don’t ask their patients enough questions when it comes to the optical. They assume they know what’s most important to their patients, they interrupt their patients before they have a chance to fully disclose their concerns, they don’t involve the patient in their care, and they often leave patients confused about their condition. Here are four key areas of communication that affect success in the optical: 

  1. Questions: Questions are among the most powerful communication tools we have at our disposal. Not only do questions establish understanding between the patient and provider, but they also communicate to the patient that we care about their concerns and perspectives. Research has found that doctors, on average, interrupt patients within 18 seconds of the patient beginning to discuss their reasons for the visit. The theory is that once doctors feel they have enough information, they jump in with the answer and solution. Unfortunately, this often results in the patient feeling misunderstood and “unheard” by their doctor.
  2. Assuming: Doctors are quick to assume that what’s important to them (the doctor) will also be important to the patient. Conversely, we also frequently assume something is not important to a patient based on their demeanor or disposition when it actually is important. As discussed above, this is why it’s important to ask a lot of questions to fully understand the patient. Here’s just one simple question a doctor could ask a patient: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how concerned are you about this condition?” The answer may or may not affect your recommendations, but if you want to connect with your patients, you have to start by understanding them. In the words of Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
  3. Involvement: There’s a saying in our industry I hear a lot: “Don’t recommend … prescribe!” I generally agree with this. It implies a more assertive approach to patient care. For example, don’t recommend prescription sunglasses, prescribe them. That said, context matters, and there are many situations where instead of dictating a treatment plan to a patient, we should involve the patient in their own care. In fact, research shows that patients want to be involved in decisions that impact their health and wellness. Know when to push (i.e., You need sunglasses to prevent your AMD from worsening) and when to involve (i.e., Let me hear your thoughts on the options we discussed).
  4. Clarity: Doctors often have what’s referred to as the “curse of knowledge.” This is where someone understands something so well that they forget what it’s like to not understand it at a high level. I’m sure most doctors can relate to a time when they explained something to a patient in a way that seemed simple, but the patient was very confused. Sometimes patients won’t admit to their doctor that they don’t understand something, but they may ask the staff, or they just leave the office confused and frustrated. It’s important that we communicate in ways that are very simple and comprehendible to patients. Visuals can be very effective to ensure understanding.

Keeping Conversations Simple
Simplicity is key when talking with patients — especially when it comes to their options in the optical. One of my favorite sayings from a speaking coach is: “Great communicators don’t take the simple and make it complex, they take the complex and make it simple.” 

These are my best tips for optimal communication: 

  • Limit the big words — use simple, relatable terminology. Analogies work well, too.
  • Use visuals (pictures, videos, 3D models, etc.)
  • Maintain consistent terminology — if the doctor says “progressives” and the optician says “multifocals,” this will create confusion for the patients.
  • Give the patient resources they can read/view at home for better understanding — but keep it simple in the office.

In most cases, the patient will trust the doctor more than the person trying to sell them glasses in the optical. Optical success will likely improve when the patient is following the doctor’s instructions as opposed to feeling “upsold” by someone they may view as a salesperson.

Human communication is complex and can’t be strictly defined. Experiment with different ways of communicating and observe the results. Jerry Seinfeld once said he doesn’t know how funny a joke will be until he performs it in front of a live audience and observes their reactions. The same can apply in the exam lane. Try different ways of asking questions, describing conditions, responding to objections, etc. Just keep getting “better” at communication. It’s worth it. Both your patients and your practice will benefit.

  • Steve Vargo, OD, MBA

    Steve Vargo, OD, MBA, is the Optometric Practice Management Consultant for IDOC. Since transitioning to a full-time practice management consultant in 2014, Dr. Vargo has performed over 3,000 consultations and coaching sessions with hundreds of independent optometry practices across the country. He speaks regularly at industry conferences, has been published in numerous industry publications, has a regular column in Optometric Management titled “The CEO Challenge,” and is a contributing author to the widely read “Optometric Management Tip of the Week” article. Dr. Vargo has also authored four books on the subjects of staff management, leadership, and patient communication. To contact him, email: [email protected]

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