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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor September 8, 2004 - Tip #138 
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Cell Phones in Your Exam Room

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We've all been there. You're in the middle of your refraction and a strange electronic ring tone emits from some unidentifiable place. The tone reminds you of a silly song of some type, but your can't quite place it. Ahhh, it's your patient's cell phone! What's really amazing is that the patient takes the call, and begins to talk to the other person!

This is obviously rude behavior, and it's a clear disregard for the doctor's (or technician's) time. It's very annoying to just sit there while the patient gabs away about his business problems or personal plans for the evening. Time is money and you have other patients to see. Cell phone usage in public can be annoying in general - but in your own office? And why do people have to talk so loudly on cell phones? It's called "cell-yell". What should you do? And more important, how can you prevent it from occurring in the future?

It's easy to take this kind of behavior personally and even get angry over it. That feeling can result in a very tough office policy, which may not be in your best interest in the big picture. I'll admit that cell phones can even push my usual customer-centric philosophy to the edge. But like most things in practice, there is a positive way to handle this challenge.

The other point of view
  • Realize that an incoming cell call can happen to anyone - even you. Cell phones are marvelous devices that keep us connected to important aspects of our lives and you or your spouse probably has one.
  • People may innocently forget to turn the phone off or switch it to voice mail. Imagine that your patient had it turned on in your waiting room when you weren't ready to see him yet, so he could quietly make good use of his time on a busy workday. When your assistant called him in, he forgot about the phone.
  • Realize that some people rely on their cell phones for emergency communication with a child at home, or a very sick relative. They may be reluctant to turn off this link even during your exam - and they may really intend to use it only for emergencies. This fact (even if abused) makes it very difficult for your office to be overly strong with a no cell phone policy. You end up looking badly.
  • Don't use some lame excuse like "cell phones must be turned off because it affects our sensitive equipment." It's obvious to everyone that this is not true and it makes people question your integrity.
  • Don't let patients view you as a grouchy old dinosaur because you get mad when a call comes in. Social values are changing and we must change with them. If you don't care what the patient thinks, then you may have an attitude that's hurting your practice growth, and that's fine if it's too big already and you don't want more patients and more revenue.
How to respond

My advice is to be understanding about cell calls and always remain pleasant, even if you're pretty ticked about it. When the phone rings, I smile and say: "Do you need to take that?"

If the patient says no, just ignore it and let it ring. It will go to voice mail.

If the patient says yes, and begins to talk about anything other than "I'm at the eye doctor's - I'll call you back", I say, "I'll give you some privacy" - and I get up to leave the room. This almost always results in the patient not wanting me to leave (who wants to wait for the doctor again?), and he will cut off the call immediately.

If he wants to look at the phone display to see the caller ID, just let him do it. Be understanding, at least once or twice during this visit. It only takes a few seconds. The patient will see you as a warm, considerate professional.

If the patient apologizes for the interruption, which he usually will, say something nice in return - like "no problem, cell phones are great devices aren't they?"

If you walk into the exam room and your patient is already on the cell phone, try to be understanding. Smile. You may be running late yourself, and the patient was waiting alone in a small room with nothing to do. Look the patient in the eye while you sit down and wait - he or she should wrap it up in a few seconds. He does need to let the other person stop talking. If he doesn't end the call soon, then use your "I'll give you some privacy" line and get up and leave the room.

  • Signs can be posted on the door to your inner office from the reception area, and again in your pre-test room that reads: "Please turn off your cell phone in the examination areas". This is a good reminder to people, and the sign makes it non-personal.
  • If you feel the problem is frequent enough, you could instruct your technician to say something to every patient at the beginning of the pre-test work-up, like "If you have a cell phone or pager, could you please turn it off during the exam?" The tech should be very understanding if the response is... "I can't because my child... etc.". At least the patient gets the message and may not take personal calls if they happen to come in.

Best wishes for continued success,

Read Past Tips Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week

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Send questions and comments to neil@gailmard.com.

Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.
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