Leveraging Patient Communication in Practice

Having effective patient and staff communication skills can work to grow your practice.

When I started at my practice, Elite Eye Care, almost 10 years ago, it was me, the owning doctor, and six employees. In 2015, we saw an unmet need in our community and started vision therapy within our primary care clinic. That was a catalyst for growth that we could’ve never predicted. We’ve since grown to four locations, nine doctors, and nearly 60 team members.

As a current part-owner of our practice and the head of our ever-growing vision therapy department, I’ve seen firsthand the importance of communication in our day-to-day tasks. You can be the best clinician with the most knowledge, but if you do not have an effective way to share that knowledge with your patients, then it’s nearly useless. 

Effective communication is essential for patient outcomes and compliance. If a patient doesn’t understand the issue, the treatment can feel confusing or pointless. Effective patient communication is also what builds practices. When patients understand how you’ve helped them, they’re able to communicate that to their friends, family, and people with the same issues. These word-of-mouth referrals have been an essential part of how we’ve grown our practice. Our team and doctors are so effective at communicating the benefits of our advanced technology that patients will already have an understanding of how and why our office is different before we do anything. 

Honing Your Communication Skills
My patient communication has evolved throughout my time in practice. As a young doctor, I felt a need to prove my knowledge and prove myself to the patient. However, overexplaining ruins compliance. Once you go beyond what the patient needs, it can become obvious that you’ve lost them. 

My patient communication improved when I was attending courses to start our vision therapy program. I was getting information for procedures, scheduling, and the basics for starting a program from scratch, and what I didn’t realize I was getting was crucial information on effectively communicating with my patients. When explaining vision therapy to a parent or patient, it’s likely it’s the first time they’ve ever heard of it. I had to develop a streamlined way to relay the value of vision therapy. Over time, this developed into a “script” that I was able to apply to other areas of my clinic when I was introducing new technologies and treatments, such as CRT, MiSight, and IPL. I noticed that the more succinctly I was able to explain these treatments, and the more I was able to speak to that specific patient’s style of listening, the easier it was to build trust, understanding, and ultimately, compliance. 

Aside from the simple (and very effective) communication techniques such as metaphors, analogies, and drawing pictures, we have also equipped each of our exam rooms with large TVs mounted above our workstations to visually communicate with patients. We use these TVs to show the patients their Optos images, OCT, anterior segment photos, and we also use a technology called Rendia to show simulations of cataracts, astigmatism, and dry eye. For patients to see the structures of the eye and understand what you’re looking at gets them on your team and makes them an active participant in their eye care.

Overcoming Communication Challenges
You’ll likely run into patients who just don’t want the help. You’ll cover every great solution and treatment only to be met with pushback. In those instances, I don’t offer any more resistance. I make it clear that I’m offering what I believe to be the best solution for their problem, and they get to decide what to do with that information. Of course, you document like crazy that you offered options and the patient refused treatment, but there is a lot of freedom in knowing that you clearly communicated the best treatment for the patient, and you can’t control how they decide to act on it. Clear communication and documentation are key in those situations.

Another crucial practice we employ that helps us overcome communication challenges is our recorded phone call system. It’s never fun to listen to yourself be played back, especially if it’s being critiqued, but our Operations Director does an incredible job of using those phone calls as learning moments to help develop our team members in their role as the “voice of the office.” 

In-Office Communication is Key
As important as it is to communicate with patients, it’s also important for our communication throughout the office to be strong and effective. For inter-office communication, we use Slack to communicate when a patient arrives and is ready to be taken back. We also use a paging system called JTECH SmartCall for our team to alert the doctors when their patient is ready. This paging system goes to our smart watches and allows us to stay on schedule, as it lets us know when our next patient is ready and waiting. This alert to our watches helps the doctors stay on time in the exam room without distracting from the patient in front of them. Our office is big, so we make the patient experience much more efficient by streamlining ways for our teams to effectively communicate within the office. Patients notice and compliment this frequently.

Regularly scheduled meetings with transparent communication have also helped us grow our practice. Every month, we host a company-wide team meeting where we review goals and celebrate the wins from the month. Every other month, our doctors have a dinner meeting to review numbers, goals, and new programs we’re implementing in the office. With multiple locations and nine doctors, it has been crucial to meet regularly and remain on the same page to keep a cohesive experience for our patients and team throughout all our offices. Our department leads also meet monthly to collaborate and review their specific goals. These meetings have played a key role in keeping us connected and aligned as we’ve grown. They allow us to share ideas, improve processes, and celebrate not only our office achievements, but each other.

Keep Things Simple
If you’re struggling with communication, whether between team members or with patients, simplicity is a powerful tool. If you are struggling to get compliance with your patients or find difficulty building the trust that allows a patient to return for more advanced treatments, you’re probably over-explaining. Utilize the tools that are available in our industry. Visual aids communicate so much on their own that it creates a conversation with the patient, and that conversation leads to incredibly natural patient communication.

  • Heidi Bell, OD, FAAO, FCOVD

    Dr. Heidi Bell, OD, FAAO, FCOVD, graduated from Iowa State University with honors in 2008 and went on to receive her Doctorate of Optometry from Southern College of Optometry in Memphis in 2012. She furthered her training through a Residency in Primary Care Optometry, spending her time serving underserved populations in various public health settings in Memphis. In 2015, Dr. Bell achieved her Fellowship in the American Academy of Optometry, and in 2019 she became a Board Certified Fellow of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD). Dr. Bell is a member of the Iowa Optometric Association, American Optometric Association, American Academy of Optometry, the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD), Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association (NORA), and The College of Syntonic Optometry (CSO). She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for the Delta Dental of Iowa Foundation, supporting their mission of providing dental, vision, and overall health care to underserved Iowans.

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