Article Date: 11/1/2005

09_05nOD_Second Feature

How to Stand Out in a Crowd
Why should patients choose you over the doc down the street? Here are six ways to distinguish yourself to patients.
By Stephen M. Cohen, O.D., Scottsdale, Ariz.

Once you graduate, you have a chance to improve patients' quality of life and build long-term relationships with many of them. In fact, much of your
success will ride on how well you build and maintain these relationships. But how do you begin? How do you distinguish yourself from other optometrists in your community? A brand new office? High-tech equipment? Extra-long work days?

In the 20 years I've been in practice, I've found my ability to rise above patients' expectations is based on how I treat them and how much I improve the quality of their lives. If you follow these six tips — none of which involve buying anything — you'll distinguish yourself as a top-notch eyecare professional right from the start.

1. Educate your patients.

You're not just an optometrist; you're also an educator. If you can quickly and effectively educate patients about their options, they're more likely to remain your patients, adhere to your recall recommendations and refer their family and friends to your practice. In fact, educated patients are a walking marketing arm for your services. Thorough education improves your chances of expanding the services you offer your patients, meeting more of their needs and increasing per-patient revenue.

Because time is typically a limiting factor in education, it's important to develop quick statements to help you meet your goals. For example, you might say, "We now have disposable bifocal contact lenses," or "You have surgical and non-surgical options to improve your vision."

These statements cover some of the advances in eye care without taking up a lot of precious chair time. Regardless of how much time you spend educating patients, the results are worthwhile.

Trade Excuses for Excellence

Colleagues who don't call their patients often offer two excuses: 1) "I'm too busy – I don't have the time," or 2) "I don't have the number handy." But you'll be pleased to learn the first excuse is unfounded, and the second is easily fixed.

You might think if you call your patients, you'll end up spending your entire evening on the phone. In my experience, this just doesn't happen. Patients are busy, too, and they respect my time. Also, they're usually so shocked to hear from me after hours or on the weekend that they're off the phone before they come up with additional questions.

For the second excuse — "I didn't the write down the patient's phone number," "I couldn't find the chart," or "I forgot about the patient until after I'd left the office" — I've found a simple remedy. I printed pads of paper with a grid that has spaces for the date, patient's name, phone number and comments. I have a pad in each exam room. While I'm with a patient who needs a call — say, someone with a conjunctival foreign body — I fill out a form and put it in my pocket. If I see another patient who needs a call, I take out the form and add his information.

When I get home, I empty my pockets and find the call list. I complete the calls in just a few minutes, but the return on those minutes is absolutely huge in terms of patient loyalty and referrals. ("You're not going to believe this, but my eye doctor called me on the phone last night to see how my eye was feeling!"). I truly care about my patients, and I want to demonstrate that any way I can.

2. Identify contact lens candidates.

About half of patients under age 35 who require vision correction wear contact lenses. By the time they reach their late 40s, however, less than 3% still wear contact lenses. Clearly, this is a huge practice-building opportunity.

Typically, presbyopic patients don't avoid contact lenses because they prefer eyeglasses. Since they only need a reading prescription, they may have "outgrown" their distance-only contact lenses or may not have needed vision correction before but haven't heard about bifocal contact lenses. Many patients assume they can't wear contact lenses because their eye doctor never suggested them. In other words, patients interpret your silence about contact lenses as proof they can't wear them.

By letting these patients know they are potential candidates, for contact lenses you begin a cascade of further discussion, multifocal contact lens fittings, prescribing, dispensing, patient loyalty and referrals.

You've learned a great deal about contact lenses in the past few years, but your ability to use that knowledge to your advantage depends on how well you communicate to patients about how you can help enhance their quality of life.

3. Offer alternative vision correction.

Patients have often experienced the same lack of communication about alternative vision correction options. Be sure to tell patients if you think they're candidates for refractive surgery, corneal refractive therapy (CRT) and other corneal reshaping methods.

Keep in mind there's no FDA age restriction on CRT, and it offers valuable benefits to children. This "reversible" and "non-surgical" therapy nicely
addresses parents' concerns about contact lenses worn during the day. What's more, we're beginning to see studies that support using these lenses to slow or stop myopia progression.

This "premium" service can be a watershed for referrals. And corneal reshaping certification has become easier, making it a quick and effective way to distinguish yourself in your community.

4. Show you care.

Some selling points are intangible. Patients will assume your medical skills are adequate, but they will judge you quite definitively on how you make them feel. When patients feel cared for, they value you as a doctor and pass along these high marks to their friends.

To show you care, it's most important to develop your listening skills. In doing so, you'll improve your diagnostic skills as well as your patients' perception of the quality of your care. For example, at the end of each visit, be sure to say, "Before you go, I want to make sure I've answered all your questions. Is there anything you'd like me to go over again?"

To show that I'm listening and I care, I also take notes — and some of them are far from being clinical. For example, if I notice a patient is reading a James Patterson novel, I note it on the exam form. At the patient's next exam, I'll ask if he's read any more Patterson books lately. If a patient asks whether she'll get her contact lenses in time for her son's wedding, I'll note it and ask about the wedding the next time I see her.

5. Call them (or Show you care part 2).

During your training, did you routinely call patients in the evening after you'd treated them for corneal abrasions? Have you ever done this? I've asked this question many times while lecturing all over the country. The answer is rarely "Yes."

"Selling" Health Care

Most O.D.s don't like to discuss the "selling" aspect of their work. This is probably because selling has some negative associations, from used-cars to door-to-door vacuum cleaners. And we've worked hard to develop the skills to diagnose, prescribe and treat — not sell.

But not to worry. The kind of selling we need to do doesn't fit those preconceptions. Our primary goal is to deliver health care, not consumer products. The selling we do every day is to convince patients to choose us for their health care, as well as to return in the future and refer others.

One colleague told me, "It depends." "On what?" I asked. "How bad the abrasion was," he responded. Well, consider this: What's the difference between minor and major surgery? If you answered "general anesthesia," you're a bit off track. Minor surgery is on someone else's body. If someone is operating on my body, it's major surgery. You may have seen dozens of abrasions that are worse than the one you saw today, but to that patient, it is a major injury.

These phone calls show you care. Oral surgeons and veterinarians make these phone calls all the time. One of my patients, an oral surgeon, once told me he makes his calls at 8 p.m. so he doesn't get calls at 2 a.m. Veterinarians can't even speak with their patients, but they still understand how important it is to let clients know they care.

If you need any more convincing that phone calls are important, ask your patients how they contact the other medical professionals they see. You'll almost certainly hear complaints about how they can never speak directly to their doctors. If your patients know you're accessible when they have a question or concern, they'll feel more secure, connected and cared for.  

6. Write letters.

All relationships take time — including the O.D./M.D connection. No one is likely to refer patients to you based on meeting you once. Sending brief written reports to your patients' primary care physicians — especially for medical eyecare patients — helps build credibility in the physicians' eyes. Physicians will become familiar with you and see the level of care you provide, reaching a comfort level that isn't attainable by simply meeting them. This long-term commitment will keep the "medical quarterback" informed about your patients, and you'll earn trust over time. Eventually, physicians may tell your mutual patients you're a good doctor, and they might refer other patients to you.

Just the Beginning

In all your years of education, you've learned and achieved so much, yet learning and achievement must begin all over again with your professional career. You have a new set of challenges. By taking steps to set yourself apart right from the beginning, you're positioning yourself to meet them and thrive.


Optometric Management, Issue: November 2005