Article Date: 3/1/2005

...I'm Sorry, What Was the Question?
Patient questionnaires provide valuable opportunities, but only when done right.
From the Executive Editor, Jim Thomas

Here's something I've suspected for awhile: Some of my family's healthcare providers don't pay attention to the answers on lifestyle questionnaires.

Acting on my hunch, I took liberties with the questionnaires. Yes, I noted on the dental questionnaire that I wanted whiter teeth. I checked the "interested in wrinkle removal" box on my wife's questionnaire for her dermatologist. She reciprocated by flagging hair loss on one of my questionnaires.

The results? Nothing really. No practices ever discussed whiter teeth, wrinkles or baldness. (I'll use this as my excuse for never completing another form in the doctor's office.)

Both sides of the issue

From the healthcare perspective, I've heard two reasons for not using patient questionnaires. The most popular is that the practice makes certain assumptions about the patient's ability or willingness to pay and doesn't follow up. The other, several staffs have told me, is that after the patient completes the form, there's not enough time to review it thoroughly before the patient's exam.

Now let's examine the patient's perspective. There's usually anxiety associated with an office visit. Is this the best time to ask the patient to fill out a questionnaire? Taking it a step further, is this the best time to ask patients to fill out a questionnaire and then not discuss the answers?

Consider the alternatives

Several practices have told me that they've done away with lifestyle questionnaires in favor of having the staff ask questions. When done with concern and not as a formality, the discussion builds staff-patient rapport and helps the patient to relax. (With this approach, there's no substitute for a well-trained, outgoing staff.)

Other practices allow the patient to fill out the questionnaires at the patient's convenience. They provide the patient with an e-mail address, Web site or self-addressed stamped envelop for an easy return.

Still others have opted for computerized questionnaires that encourage patients to select topics of interest and then view interactive video programs. The growing number of computer-savvy patients feel comfortable with this option, claim its proponents.

Whichever approach you choose, it must encourage patients to share information comfortably. And what should you do with the results? Successful practices say that the questionnaires are the starting point of a cycle that ends when the doctor delivers a combination of solutions that improves the patient's sight, health and loyalty to the practice.


Optometric Management, Issue: March 2005