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I think patient handouts are an excellent patient communication tool to use in the office. If you have certain policies or procedures that patients don't seem to understand on a regular basis, you should consider writing a handout for it. The cool thing is that it also re-educates your staff about the issue and works as a reminder as to how they should respond to patient questions.
I know we are all thinking about using less paper in our practices, but there is still something refreshingly simple about a single sheet of paper that a staff member can pick up and show to a patient, and let him keep if he wishes.
What issues to address
You may already know of a few recurring issues that people are confused about, but ask your staff for examples as well.
Here is a recent email question from a reader that illustrates a situation where a handout is effective: “You stated in a recent tip article that you are happy to quote contact lens fees and explain what they are for, but if the patient does not see the value in your services, you just move on. Can you expand on what you do say to the patient about your fees? How about if they keep the same lenses every year with the same powers, but we still charge an evaluation fee? Do you have a patient explanation template for that situation that you could share?”
Here are few more possible issues to get you thinking about your practice:
What are contact lens evaluation fees really for?
Should you bill the vision plan or major medical insurance?
Is refraction covered by insurance?
Why should I buy my contact lenses from your office rather than the internet or big box retailers?
Can I buy my glasses on the internet?
Why do I need a retinal photograph?
What if I try progressive lenses and I don't like them – do I get a refund of the price difference from regular bifocals?
What if I re-use my old frame and it is broken at the lab?
Why should I buy glasses from your office rather than other optical stores?
Don't overdo it
It's great to think about the problem areas and how your office can communicate better, but be sure you don't overwhelm patients with paper forms and disclaimers. Pick your battles wisely and clean house if you have too many forms. Go sparingly with forms that require signatures or initials; those are more likely to feel intimidating to patients and sometimes just the education is enough.
It works best if you just write your own documents to explain what you want in plain English. Don't make the common mistake of trying to make the handout sound extra important and impressive; that approach just backfires most of the time. If you were talking to a patient about an issue, what would you say? Keep it very brief. No one is going to stand in your hallway and read a long document.
Take the time to check for proper grammar and correct spelling and have someone else proofread the document.
Realize that patient handouts, like all printed media, make a statement about your practice. You can actually improve the image of your practice with the right tools or damage it with the wrong ones. A very common problem is using a copy of a copy of a copy. This is easy to do because the original gets lost and a staff member just photocopies the last of a stack of copies. The result is text and images that are poor quality with margins that are crooked on the page; obviously a poor impression is made. It says you just don't care. I think it's best to avoid photocopiers in general. Make an effort to save all educational documents as a Word or PDF file and print copies directly from that file.
Here are some ideas for your handouts that will make your practice look up to date.
Import your practice logo as a header on all documents. A logo is much more impressive than the name of the practice or doctor simply typed at the top.
Printing text only in black and white is OK and gets the job done, but why not consider something with a graphical design and color? The new generation of ink jet printers is making color printing more affordable with larger cartridges, and many times the patient does not want to take the handout but your staff will use it as an aid.
Microsoft Word and many other programs have some easy, ready-made templates that can really make your educational documents look great. Just select a style you like and type in your text. In Word 2007, just click on the Office symbol in the upper left corner and then click “New.” Instead of selecting blank document, look at the toolbar on the left and see a list of templates to choose from. Try “flyer” to start, but there are many others.
Import some photos into your document. People understand faster with pictures. If the handout is about retinal photos include an image of a fundus. If it's about contact lenses, why not use a corneal topography image or a picture of a contact lens on a fingertip or a box of contacts. Use a photo from your own office or just find a stock photo on the internet to download.
If you feel technology challenged with some of the above steps, you need to learn by doing. Have a staff member or friend help you the first time and learn as you go.
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week
Dr. Gailmard's new book, Practice Management in Optometry: A Blueprint for Success Based on the Optometric Management Tip of the Week, is now available on Amazon.