Article Date: 3/1/2010

When Youthful Looks Raise Eyebrows

When Youthful Looks Raise Eyebrows

In social settings, it's considered bad manners to bluntly ask someone's age. But put on a white coat and folks won't hesitate to pop the question.

By Jennifer E. Davis, OD, Waynesboro, Va.

I think confidence should be a required attribute for all doctors, particularly those who look young. I've looked younger than my age my entire life, so dealing with the infamous age question was nothing new but having to answer, "How old are you?" or variations there of became a bit more annoying when I began practicing. I didn't like wasting air time on the same question, several times each day and feeling the need to prove myself got old really fast.

I went through a short phase of answering "I'm 15…my mom just dropped me off here at work. How old are you?" But then I realized I was approaching it all wrong. When I stopped making it about me and started making it about my patients, I turned lemons into lemonade and saw "age questions" as an opportunity to develop a good rapport with my patients. I've learned that patients tend to appreciate itwhen I provide my age when asked, acknowledge that I am young (or look young), and then reassure them that I'll take excellent care of them.

If you're a young doctor, or just look young, here are some ideas to help diffuse the situation.

■ Let your staff be your biggest cheerleaders. Convey your knowledge and expertise to them first (for example, give them an eye exam and teach them something they didn't know about their eyes). Then ask them to relay your competence to patients. It's an automatic confidence booster for patients when they hear staff speaking positively about you.
■ Introduce yourself to adult patients as "Dr. (last name)", instead of "Dr. (first name)".When patients and staff call me "Dr. Jennifer," I feel it underscores my youth, even if it's just subconscious on their part.
■ Highlight your achievements by hanging several nicely framed certificates in your exam lanes so patients can study them before you enter the room. I have 15 different degrees, awards, membership certificates and so on in one exam lane. When patients comment on them, they love both of my standard, light-hearted responses, which are a) I love what I do, and b) I'm just overcompensating for looking so young.
■ Spend time educating patients on their vision and eye health. Let's face it, if I do the same examas the 35-year veteran doctor down the road, patients are automatically more likely to believe him than me. Spending time educating patients is a key component of my practice philosophy, and it also serves as a great opportunity to demonstrate my compassion and my knowledge (in layman's terms).
■ Choose your words carefully during the exam. Youmay opt to say, "As we age…" instead of, "As you age … ." Also consider, "Condition X occurs as you add more candles to your birthday cake" instead of "Condition X occurs as you get older." The words you choose will show patients you're making an effort to understand where they're coming from, even if you haven't experienced it yourself.
■ Dress professionally. Studies show time and time again that patients are more likely to accept recommendations from doctors who are dressed professionally than from those who are not.
■ Be lighthearted, but direct. Don't beat around the bush. I believe patients appreciate straight answers and your confidencewill earn their confidence.

If you're a rookie, remember every good doctor was a rookie once, too. Finding away to mention your clinical experiences and 8 years of higher education is helpful, but don't shy away from the age question. Feel proud of the position you've secured regardless of your age. One of my favorite reactions was from a female patient who bluntly asked my age with raised eyebrows. I answered and she responded by standing up and shouting, "You go girl!" with her hand up to high-five me. I was 27 at the time.

If and when the occasional patient or two is scared away despite your best efforts, don't take it personally. Some patients simply feel more comfortable with an older, more experienced doctor, and there's nothing wrong with that. Some patients worry they'll receive subpar care; others may just be upset because your youthful looks make them feel old. The reason doesn't matter—you can't have a successful relationship without a good rapport between doctor and patient.

Keep in mind that a good number of patients prefer—and may go to great lengths — to find younger doctors whom they believe are equipped with the latest and greatest knowledge. Many older patients also want to establish themselves with younger doctors who will outlive them.

So look on the bright side, do what you can do and remember that nature will take its course. You may wish you looked older now, but one day when you're wearing bifocals, you'll probably agree that being young is more of a blessing than a curse. nOD

Dr. Davis is a 2001 graduate of the University of Houston's College of Optometry. She's in private practice at Vision Tech Optometry Center, Inc., in Waynesboro, Va. You can reach her at

Optometric Management, Issue: March 2010