Personal health literacy is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.”1
As optometrists, we know that clear communication is necessary for both patient and practice success. We learn how to simplify medical jargon into layman’s terms, to not judge a book by its cover, and to implement patient teach-back. We develop analogies, hone our explanations, and confirm comprehension at the end of each visit. So, why do 33% of Americans report leaving their appointments not knowing what they were told or understanding what they’re supposed to do?2
There’s a chronic disconnect between the quality of education we think we are delivering, and the level of ocular health literacy that exists in the communities we serve. So, how do we reconcile this?
Choose Your Words Carefully
First, we need to evaluate what has become our benchmarks. As doctors, it’s easy to fall into our routines and take our knowledge for granted, to forget that words such as glaucoma, cataracts, and even astigmatism easily roll off our tongue but are not commonly heard by the general population.
The CDC has reported that nine out of 10 Americans have limited health literacy skills and struggle to understand health-related information.2 We need to examine how we communicate with our patients, how we brush past “normal” findings for the sake of time, and how we can take an active role in delivering ocular health care information to our patients both in and out of the chair.
Use Your Time Wisely
The largest hurdle that optometrists have to overcome in providing thorough patient education is the constraint of time. While we need to utilize our limited face-to-face time efficiently, we cannot rely solely on verbal communication.
In order to establish ourselves as the sole source of ocular health information, we need to implement various educational strategies beyond the chair to ensure our patients are armed with the knowledge they need to make decisions about disease prevention, treatment, and follow-up care.
Studies have shown that 40-80% of the medical information patients are told during office visits is forgotten immediately, and nearly half of the information retained is incorrect.3 Each patient learns and retains information differently, so we must do our best to cater to these differences by providing educational content that is easily digestible, accurate, and concise. Perhaps more importantly, it must be easy to remember and retrieve when needed.
How Do We Accomplish This?
We connect with our patients by showing up where they are. We provide verbal and written communication in-office, but we also stock our websites with blog posts, videos, visual guides, and answers to frequently asked questions.
We modernize the field of optometry by routinely sharing eye health recommendations, tips from a doctor, and office photos or videos to our social media accounts. If nothing else, we need to work toward developing a digital presence in order to compete with the medically unverified nonsense that bombards our patients on a daily basis.
In a 2023 post on Healthcare Marketing statistics, Digitalis stated that a “strong health care marketing strategy is the key to educating, retaining, engaging, and motivating potential, existing, and new patients in the digital age.”4 The statistics show that the majority of patients are using the internet to find health care information and that while they trust posts from doctors the most, they’re likely to find a new doctor if their website is lacking information.
Make it Personal
Take a look around your office and inventory the type of patient education materials you have available. Do you have a hodgepodge collection of commercialized brochures and signs? Do your educational assets scream “advertisement”? Does that brochure of information you’re handing your patient refer them back to you as the source of knowledge or does it immediately direct them to another company’s website?
While it’s tempting to use free marketing materials given to us by conglomerates, it’s wildly valuable to invest in branded educational content. In fact, when asked what makes a health care provider trustworthy, 55% of patients reported “providing personalized education and resources about conditions, symptoms, and treatment options.”2
Imagine instead that your office is stocked with branded content that refers to you by name, includes a regimen recommendation that was written by you instead of a pharmaceutical company, and refers the patient to your website and social media accounts for additional information. Creating this internal feedback loop not only helps push traffic to your website and reduce unnecessary office calls, but it can also help prevent missed appointments and establish your practice as a trustworthy part of their health care team.
Improving ocular health literacy is one of the most important aspects of our job as doctors. Taking ownership over our field and working to make education accessible beyond our chair is crucial to our success. At the end of the day, empowering our patients with knowledge turns them into advocates and is our most effective organic marketing strategy.