Optometric Management Tip # 89   -   Wednesday, October 01, 2003
Answering the question: "Are you an optometrist or an ophthalmologist?"

We all get this question from time to time. A patient asks it at the front desk while checking in, or it could be a caller on the phone who is trying to schedule an appointment. We should have a good answer ready - and it is especially important to review your preferred answer with all staff members. It's fairly easy for the answer to come out sounding negative for optometry, but it won't if you work on it.

First, let's remember that we don't want to sound defensive, or confrontational, or argumentative, and it's easy to get that way. And we don't want to belittle the person for asking because it's actually a very good and fair question. We also don't want the definition to be too long or complex, or we'll lose the person's attention. Of course we want to be honest and accurate, but I also believe it's appropriate to focus on the positive aspects of our profession. I've heard how some ophthalmologists define optometry, and it is evident they don't lose any sleep over balancing the strong points of the two professions. So when a patient asks me, I'm going to toot our profession's horn, so to speak.

Here are a few ideas to consider as you formulate your "differentiation statement". I suggest you write out your own preferred answer and discuss it at a future staff meeting. You may want to print out a few copies of your statement so your staff can have it as a reference.

"Oh, don't worry, our doctor is an optometrist, which is the primary care eye doctor or the type of eye doctor most patients should see. Optometrists are not only the experts in refraction and vision problems, but were also trained and licensed to diagnose and treat eye diseases, manage the effects that general health problems may have on the eye, and determine the need for eye surgery."

If more discussion is needed... "Ophthalmologists are surgical eye specialists, so most of their training and concentration in practice is on surgical techniques. Optometrists co-manage surgical cases with ophthalmologists, and we will refer you to one if surgery is indicated."

An adjunct situation you may find yourself in is when a patient assumes you are an ophthalmologist - usually when he or she is very pleased with the thoroughness of your eye care - and they make some negative comment about optometrists. A typical statement would be: "You do such a good examination here. The last time I had an exam I just went to an optometrist, but this time I decided I needed to see a real doctor." I always respond and correct these statements, but I do so in an understanding way. A possible response is: "Optometry has advanced so rapidly in recent years that it's easy to confuse the different eye professions. Optometrists today are extremely well trained as primary care eye doctors and they do much more than prescribe eyeglasses. I'm an optometrist and, as you can see, we are very thorough. We also diagnose and treat eye disease."

Best wishes for continued success,

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