Article Date: 3/1/2010

"Aren't You a Little Young?"

"Aren't You a Little Young?"

Some patients might feel a bit hesitant when they see a young or young-looking doctor. Here are some thoughts on how to head off the problem and suggestions to help you address questions if they arise.

By Jamie J. Casper, OD, PhD, FAAO, Wilmington, NC

As a new optometrist, you're eager to begin establishing strong doctor-patient relationships and earning patients' confidence, which will translate into future office visits and referrals. The day starts with you reviewing the chart before entering the exam lane. You read "New patient: 50-year-old male with complaints of crusty lashes and redness in the morning that improves throughout the day." You think to yourself "This is a slam-dunk. I'm going to nail this blepharitis diagnosis." You open the door and enter with a confident smile but before you have the opportunity to introduce yourself, the patient boldly asks "how old are you?"

This sort of question (variations of which include "How long have you been doing this?" and "Aren't you a little young to be a doctor?") can derail your confident swagger in an instant. They're all valid questions that come up for many doctors much more often than you might think. Twice last week alone I entered exam rooms and was immediately targeted by such questions from patients' spouses.

What They're Really Asking

Let's think about what the patient is really asking you as you walk in the room: "why should you be my doctor?" Experience is often perceived — right or wrong — as competence and if you're a recent grad or simply blessed with youthful good looks, you may look a little short of optometric experience. This is where you have to muster your inner confidence and courage. It helps to be prepared to answer the question they're really asking. In other words, use your life experience to relieve their apprehension.

Help Them Get to Know You

Satisfy their craving for knowledge about your background by placing a biographical summary in the waiting room. Most of their questions may be answered just by having an abbreviated curriculum vitae next to the latest issue of Better Homes & Gardens. Patients can begin building that doctor-patient relationship in their heads before they've even met you. In the document, list your schooling, including undergraduate and graduate studies, as well as externships you participated in during school. Additional degrees and residencies are experiences patients will consider as they mentally calculate how young (read: competent) you really are.

Listing your hobbies and interests also will help patients feel more comfortable with you. There's a direct correlation between how comfortable a patient feels about you, and the ease with which you're able to conduct an exam and discuss the patient's history.

More than 2 years ago, I started my career at a private practice in a small rural town with a patient base that was very loyal to the founding doctor, who was out on maternity leave. For the first few weeks, I spent most of my time answering questions about my age and convincing patients that I was experienced enough to handle her patient base. After we placed my curriculum vitae in the lobby, I received more questions about my competitive fencing training and why I moved to North Carolina rather than my age.

Prepare to Answer Questions About Experience

"I just graduated last year" may not inspire confidence, so it's not the best response — even if it's true. I always say that I've been training for his exam for 10 years. For more recent graduates, it may be 4 to 5 years. I count my first year of optometry as my first year in the profession. The first lecture on the first day of classes was the initial step toward learning how to treat ocular conditions. The quantity of years becomes relative in terms of perceived competence the farther out you go. Are 5 years of experience that much different than 10? Are 10 years of experience thatmuch different than 15? The key is to point out that your training up to this point has prepared you to solve his problem.

Answer With Humor

Questions about age and experience also can be addressed with humor. If you have children, try a light-hearted comment such as "well, at least my kids haven't aged me too much." I sometimes say, "my mind still feels I can recover like a teenager but my body doesn't always agree." Often, the patient will say it doesn't get any better. You can use that sort of comment to find out how their eyes have changed. Ask them what's different about their eyes or their vision from 5 or 10 years ago and see if you can indentify a complaint or symptom you can treat.

When it comes to humor, choose your audience wisely and remember that comedic timing is important—it can be a tough crowd in the exam lane and first impressions are very important. I reserve humor until I can get a read on the demeanor of the patient and often rely on my screening technician to help me decide if I should engage the patient by tickling the funny bone.

Grow a Beard

This may not be a realistic solution for 50% of the population, but facial hair sometimes adds years to your appearance. I sported the goatee in the late 1990s-early 2000s for about 8 years to help keep me warm in the long winter months up north and the question of my age wasn't often broached. Since moving to the sunny coast, I vanquished the facial hair. But its absence must make me look younger because the question of age is coming up more frequently.

It's All About Perspective

Understand that to many patients, they perceive that they're getting older and doctors are getting younger. Many established doctors want to bring in young associates who can become partners and eventually take over their practices. As you transition into existing practices, you'll see patients who are apprehensive about younger looking doctors. Earn their confidence by using your youthful looks to your advantage. Show them the energy you have and it will translate into establishing new relationships that will grow with time. nOD

Dr. Casper is a 2004 graduate of The Ohio State University College of Optometry. He practices at Fanelli Eye Associates and with other primary care and surgical offices in Wilmington, NC.

Optometric Management, Issue: March 2010