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Patient Communication translates to practice growth



One of the most unpleasant experiences in healthcare, takes place in a doctor’s waiting room, when he is running an hour late and you have no idea how much longer you are going to wait. A simple explanation about how, for instance, he had to deal with an emergency earlier, will put everyone into tolerance mode. Offering to reschedule those who may have to pick up a child from school, would be nice. Even just announcing how late he is running will be helpful. Being kind and respectful to patients will translate to word of mouth referrals, which is by far the most powerful way to grow a practice. The key to strong patient relationships is good communication. However, it will serve no purpose to announce at the staff meeting that from now on we are going to communicate nicely.  Mode of communication must be specific and documented in the policy and procedure manual, so that the whole team will engage in exactly the same way with each situation presented.

The initial contact is vital. It should be courteous and respectful: we need to make sure we address patients as they wish to be addressed. Some may prefer you to call them by their first names, while others might want a more formal address. The key thing is to find out what is right for each individual. And generally, ‘pet’ names – ‘love’, ‘dear’, ‘doll’ – shouldn’t be used. Also don’t ask: “And you are?” This is terrible! Ask the patient: “May I ask your name please.”  The way they answer will give a strong clue as to how they would like to be addressed – Nancy Jones or Mrs Jones.

It’s common for people who need health care services to feel anxious about their visit, about what tests and treatment they might have to undergo and about what the future holds for them. This can sometimes cause them to speak out of character, perhaps being a bit rude or aggressive. Having good, caring communication with front-of-house staff will reduce their anxiety and build their confidence. They will also love you for it, and tell everybody how nice you were!

Listening is vital to good communication, especially in an optometric practice. When the person has finished speaking, reflect back to him or her what you’ve understood. For instance, you might say something like this: “It sounds from what you’re saying, Mr Smith, that you’ve got some concerns about the outcome of the eye examination. Don’t worry, our optometrist, Miss Jones,  will take great care of you.”

Our body language says a lot about our interest and engagement in the communication we’re having. It is important our posture, eye contact, facial expression and touch all match the words we are saying. Touch is a very powerful means of communication. Lightly touching Auntie Agnes’ hand can convey your concern and affection for her. But as with eye contact, the touch has to be appropriate, and there are important cultural issues around touch that need to be understood. 

Telephone technique is very important, since it is often the first contact with the practice. The basic requirement is to announce the name of the practice and then identify yourself – slowly and clearly: “ This is Jones Optometrist, Sally speaking.” Telephonists can easily fall into the very bad habit of rattling off when answering the phone, because they do it so often. It defeats the objective if the patient can’t make out what is said as well as being very irritating. Firstly, I want to know, did I reach the right place and then who am I talking to. Forget about greeting in different languages, let’s get to the business end. The same applies to an outgoing call. “This is Sally calling from Nancy Jones Optometrist” In South Africa we often receive phone calls that start with “How are you?” In our fast paced world with the expectation of instant gratification, this does not work. First, I want to know who is calling me, so that I can decide whether I want to talk to this person, then we can get into pleasantries. If you are calling to sell insurance, I am not interested to tell you how I am.

So, let’s look at some good communication practices.

  1. First contact with a patient should NEVER be “can I help you” – it is truly lame. Instead “Good morning my name is Nancy, what can we do for you today?”
  2. Avoid, “Has any of your information changed”? Use specifics, “I have your address as Main St, is that still correct?” People may not remember that they haven’t been to the office and haven’t updated information.
  3. Make a follow up call after the initial appointment had been made, to explain all benefits and answer any more questions.
  4. Pay close attention to how each of your patients prefer to be contacted. This should be noted on the master file.
  5. If you are running late and the next patient is waiting, find an excuse to leave the consulting room for a few seconds to personally, quietly apologise and tell them how much longer you are likely to be. Always offer to reschedule another appointment if need be.
  6. Make a follow-up call to check how the patient is doing with the new specs, especially when spatial distortion or adaptation is anticipated.
  7. Staff must be in constant communication with each other. No matter which staff member the patient might encounter next, they should always be aware of the situation.
  8. That’s why it is important to write down and pass on messages.
  9. Make sure they know what their payment portion is before leaving the practice.
  10. Take notes on patients about what’s going on in their lives so you can make sure to ask about it on their next visit.
  11. Put a QR code on your business card, that, if scanned, takes them right to our Facebook page.
  12. When a patient calls to cancel their appointment and doesn’t reschedule right away, let them know that you will be following up in about a month or so. This way when we do send a text/email/call, they know in advance and aren’t surprised when we contact them.
  13. Call patients the day before to remind them of their appointments.
  14. When a tense and unhappy patient comes in with a complaint about the new spectacles, the first thing to say is: “Mrs Jones, I want you to know that we will do whatever is necessary to make you love your spectacles and it won’t cost you anything”. Immediately, you have defused the situation and set the stage for amicable communication. Money should never come into the equation here.

Some optometrist strictly do not take calls while busy with an examination on the basis that the patient in the chair is entitled to undivided attention because they are paying for your time. I don’t agree. Imagine telling Sally as you send her on her way with newly fitted contact lenses: “Any problems call me.” The next morning she has a red painful eye and calls your office only to be told you are busy! I say, your receptionist by asking the right questions should establish if it is important to put the call through. When the phone rings in the consulting room you say to Nancy Jones: “They won’t put a call through unless it is an emergency, please excuse me while I take this.”  Now you repeat what Sally says on the line: “So you have a painful red eye?” Nancy will immediately get it that she is in the hands of a caring, trustworthy optometrist. A potential negative is now turned into a huge positive and everybody is happy.

A communication protocol will only make an impact if the whole team buys into it. But when they do, it becomes an awesome characteristic of the business. Writing it down is the first step, but then implementation demands a concerted effort from everybody. I find it works best if everybody agrees upfront to help one another until the habit is ingrained. So, no offense is taken when a colleague who uses the wrong communication technique, is corrected. It is a system that will require constant review and management, but so valuable in the end.