By Cheryl G. Murphy, OD
Increasingly, patients seek health information online–challenging you as the primary information provider about eye health. Here are tips for listening to your patients’ needs and reinforcing your authority by answering their questions thoroughly.
We have all experienced it: The patient comes in, sits in our exam chair and whips out printer pages full of symptoms they have Googled. “I saw a bump on my eye, and aweb site said it’s cancerous!” Or, maybe: “Dr. Murphy, I think my glasses prescription might be off because I’ve been getting a lot of headaches, but when I Googled ‘headaches and eyes,’ I got worried!”
Tips on Doctor-Patient
Sometimes it’s hard to fight that sneaking suspicion that the only reason a patient has asked for the proper spelling of a condition is so they can go home and type the diagnosis into their search engine of choice later. Do they feel there is something they are not getting from you, which makes them feel they need a virtual second opinion? Do you ever wonder why they don’t just ask us more about their conditions, or come to us first with their symptoms before running to the computer?
You May Be Discouraging Patient Questions
It may just be human nature for patients to doubt the information you give them, or it could be that you are unintentionally giving patients the impression that you do not have time or interest for their questions. When you discuss your refraction or diagnosis with patients, do you find yourself talking more than listening? As doctors, we have a duty to educate patients, but we also have a duty to listen to their questions, and, when necessary, to draw those questions out of them.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Consider adding more opportunities for conversation, rather than a speech, to interact with patients. When patients first sit in your exam chair, begin by asking them general questions, such as: “How are your eyes feeling? Are you able to see everything you need to throughout the day, at work, at home and at play? Do you ever feel uncomfortable with your eyes visually or physically?”
It is not enough to ask these questions, and other open-ended questions, on the intake form you hand patients when they register at your front desk. As the doctor, you need to elicit open-ended questions about eye and vision comfort when the patient is face-to-face with you, in your exam chair.
After the examination, and explanation to patients of your refraction or diagnosis, ask the patient if they understood everything you explained to them, and go beyond that initial question. You might also ask, for example, their feelings about your prescription or treatment plan. By asking about their comfort level with your treatment plan, you might find that it is not realistic for their lifestyle. You could find that the cleaning and replacement regimen for their contact lenses doesn’t work for them, and that they need daily disposable lenses, or that they are not able to remember, on a long-term basis, to put drops in their eyes twice a day–or that they cannot afford the eyedrops or contact lenses solution you prescribed.
Direct Them to You–Not Google–Online
Asking more open-ended questions during exams is a great start, but many patients will still want additional information–answers to questions they think of on the drive home from your office that they wished they had asked–so let them know you are available online. One idea is to create sections on your web site for commonly asked questions, along with an e-mail button they can click on to send your office their question. To quench your patients’thirst for information, provide basic information about all of the services and treatments you provide. For instance, in your optical section, provide information about how often patients need to have their prescriptions updated, and in the section of your site detailing eye conditions like glaucoma, provide information and links to other sites that explain what the disease is and a few of the different treatment options. Your contact lenses section could provide commonly asked questions about the different types of contact lenses available, the maintenance regimens for each, the cost and what kind of patient each kind of contact lenses would be best for.
Create a Doctor’s Blog
Along with a web site and Facebook page, let your voice as an eye health authority be heard through your own blog. Many sites, like WordPress, offer blog platforms free of charge. There also is no cost for Twitter, so you will easily be able to publicize each of your blog posts. You can post signs in your office, and on your business card, for patients to follow you on Twitter, where they will receive alerts about your latest blogs. You can encourage patients to go to your blog for more information on a subject after you have finished explaining it in the office. Post the latest eye health-related medical news; show patients you are passionate about your profession with patient success stories (childhood refractions that made a world of difference, or your success at catching a health issue like diabetes). Your own blog can provide yet another medium for patients to get an education from you, rather than a search engine, on basic eye conditions and illnesses.
You still have to maintain proper patient privacy rights and not disclose personal medical information online, so adopt a style in which you speak broadly on topics without divulging information that could be traced back to a patient. You can use the blog to continue the conversations that start on your web site about commonly asked questions that you receive in the office, such as “What is a cataract?” or “Why is it necessary to have a yearly contact lens re-evaluation?” Openly accept requests for specific topics. After you write enough articles, and maybe do a little search engine optimizing, you may find that YOU are now the one who people are finding in their Google search results.
Direct Patients to Reputable Sources
In the best case scenario, patients will turn to you for information most of the time, but some patients will always feel the needto double-check with another source. You can fulfill that need by providing a list on your site, as well as in printed materials in your office, of accurate and reputable secondary sources of information online.
By soliciting and drawing out your patients’ questions during the exam, and providing online support and dependable secondary information to patients, you can keep them from forming eye health misconceptions. You can establish a relationship of trust with them as the primary source of information about their eyes.
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Cheryl G. Murphy, OD, practices at an independent optometric practice in Holbrook, NY. To contact her: email@example.com.