Optometric Management Tip # 350   -   Wednesday, October 15, 2008
How much patient education is enough?

As you try to set your practice apart from others, do you ever wonder how much patient education is enough and how much is too much? The personal touch between an eye care provider (ECP) and patient is paramount in building a strong relationship, which results in a high degree of loyalty. Educating the patient about his visual problems (and the solutions) is the cornerstone of that personal touch. The smart ECP will take the time to analyze objectively how well patient education is handled in the practice. The well-meaning ECP can easily go beyond the point of patient interest and enter into the relationship-damaging area of pontificating and utter boredom.

How interesting is it?

People love to hear about themselves, so learning about one's visual status and ocular health is generally interesting, to a point. But where is that point where the interest changes to boredom or worse: annoyance? The crossover point varies somewhat among patients, so it's always best to closely monitor the patient's body language as you're speaking. You may even want to pause after you've touched on the basics and ask if the patient wants to hear more. Judge the response carefully, however, since most people will not want to offend their doctor and they may feel forced to answer yes.

ECPs are extremely variable in their desire to talk. Some hardly say anything to patients because they are shy, disinterested or just too busy. Others love to show off their high level of technical knowledge on any eye subject and they think (or hope) that patients will be duly impressed. The best approach is not at either extreme, but somewhere in the middle. Explain the important findings at the end of your exam in plain English.

Find out if your usual patient education approach is at an optimum level by seeing it from the patient's point of view. Ask for honest opinions from a spouse or trusted staff member who will tell you the truth after they watch you in action.

The time factor

As you evaluate your patient education strategy, consider how it relates to patient flow. Do you often run behind schedule? Could you see more patients per day if you could reduce the time spent with each one? Time is extremely important in your quest to increase profitability, especially if you accept vision plans.

Share everything you see

Be sure to mention everything you see about a patient's eyes, even if it is very minor. I like to qualify certain findings as minor and nothing to worry about, but I also explain that I like to share everything I see. A common example is the early stage of cataract. It may seem like you don't need to concern the patient about something that is of no consequence at the present time, but invariably some of those patients will see another ECP or their family doctor or have a vision screening and someone else will tell them they have a cataract. When that happens, you can't win. Either you will appear to have missed the diagnosis or you will be guilty of seeing something but choosing to not tell the patient. Both are bad for your image.

While it's important to be forthcoming and proactive, be sure you don't over-embellish a condition or use what might be construed as scare tactics to make your agenda. Your credibility and integrity are at stake.

Electronic education

The ophthalmic industry has produced many new electronic tools to assist with patient education in recent years, and I'm sure there are many new formats to come. Using computer workstations, flat screen monitors and software, an ECP can present very interesting video vignettes on customized eye care topics or general promotional ads. Three dimensional eye models can be shown on the display to assist the practitioner with a personal educational spiel. These educational work stations may be set up in a reception area, exam rooms, inner-office holding area, contact lens room or optical dispensary.

The new forms of informational media can be valuable ways to entertain and educate patients while they wait and they can help sell eye care services and products, but like anything, too much of a good thing can be harmful. I like these educational tools, but don't overdo it. Don't forget that patients are smart and they know a commercial when they see one and they don't often like them. This is especially true if the person feels like he's being held captive.

Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management