Article Date: 4/1/2005

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Watch Your Language

Your patients will appreciate your choosing your words carefully.
Gery Gerber, O.D.

No, I'm not referring to the use of profanity. I'm talking about simple words and phrases that can easily send subtle, diminutive unintended messages to our patients. We're all guilty of it.


Put it in perspective

We swing the slit lamp around to the patient and say, "Let me take a quick peek inside and see how everything is going." Or perhaps you prefer, "Let me take a quick look at your contact lenses and see if they're fitting okay." Or with your binocular indirect ophthalmoscope mounted, your condensing lens in hand and the patient tilted back in the chair you say, "Let me take a quick look back there and see if everything is alright."

Seemingly innocuous, these quick "looks" and "peeks" can undermine an image you've worked so hard to create. Consider the cardiologist who, after you've complained of chest pains, says, "I've taken a quick peek at your EKG and you're fine." Wouldn't you just love to respond with, "Oh really? I would hope my chest pains would warrant a thorough exam whereby you devoted your absolute undivided attention! After all, we're talking chest pain here, doc! Come on -- take another look and examine the results carefully!"

Get out of your old routine

All too often, what's commonplace and routine to us is shocking and unnerving for a patient. How we approach and explain situations that are everyday occurrences for us leaves a big impression on them.

Perhaps the classic example of this is a "routine" subconjunctival hemorrhage (SCH). Being one of the few things we might actually feel comfortable "diagnosing" over the phone because of its classic history and presentation, the freak-out factor for a first-time patient who wakes up with blood in his eye is an 11 on a scale of one to 10.

Clinically, these patients are usually in need of nothing more than reassurance and education. Therefore, the astute clinician will enter the room and not yawn or make his diagnosis while his hand is still on the doorknob. Instead, he or his assistant will take a careful history and listen intently while the patient relays what happened. Once the history is complete, the doctor will proceed to "take a careful look at your eye."

Surely, if there were ever a case where a "quick peek" was justified, this would be it. But be careful and put yourself in your patients' shoes. For them, an SCH is certainly not a routine event!

"Just" is the enemy

Another seemingly innocent word we should try to avoid is "just." If we start a sentence with the words "It's just . . . ," then the next sentence will need to justify why we used the word "just." Consider the following examples:

"Mrs. Redeye, it's just pink eye. I'll give you some drops and you'll feel better in a few days."

"Mrs. Nonadapt, it's just some distortion from your new prescription. You'll get used to it and it'll go away in a few days."

In both cases, eliminating the word "just" would convey a sense that the patients' problems were more important to you.

How do you hone in on your own language, which by now is second nature and a part of who you are and how you speak?

Nike says, "Just do it." I say, "Do it."

Dr. Gerber is the president of the Power Practice, a company specializing in making optometrists more profitable.  Learn more at or call Dr. Gerber at (800) 867-9303.


Optometric Management, Issue: April 2005