Use Office Down Time Productively: Four Tips

By Cheryl G. Murphy, OD

Oct. 5, 2016

We have options in how to spend time when we are not seeing patients. Read each situation, workplace (if you’re an employed OD like me) and each day to know how to best use spare minutes that come your way.

I’ve worked for a variety of practices at this point in my career. I’ve worked for private practices, corporate practices, and even private practices located within corporate ones. I have also worked for optometrists and ophthalmologists. Anywhere we optometrists work, at one point or another, we are bound to encounter the same thing: down time.

Optometrists can find themselves with “down time” for various reasons. Patients can “no show,” or call to cancel, so what looks like a packed schedule at the beginning of the day can quickly turn into one with breaks in it. Also, we all know that no matter where or how you practice there are inherently some times of year that are busier than others, and some weeks in the fiscal year that always end up being the slowest. The question is: how do we use this down time to the benefit of the practice and ourselves?

I will be the first to admit, there have been times I have not used my down time well. I have played computer pinball, Solitaire and Mine Sweep back when PCs carried those now-archaic games. I have also spent time talking to staff or running next door to get a coffee. When I worked in a large mall I even went out shopping a time or two. However, I always felt better on the days when I spent what little free time I had doing something productive to benefit either my well being or the overall well being of the practice. And I mean that!

Call it a guilty conscious, but, like a lot of things in life, it felt better to reap the reward (in this case a paycheck) when I did my best to earn it in a forthright and honest way. With that in mind, here are some of the best ways you can spend your down time. I am not saying every bit of down time should be spent doing these things, however, it should be a sort of quick check list you go through in your own mind to help you decide how you should productively use a extraordinarily big block of down time.

How to Use Down Time to Benefit the Practice

Clean: I am by no means a neat freak. At home I do my best to chase and clean up after three 9-year-olds, so needless to say, I have developed a high tolerance for a low level of messiness. However, I do think that medical practices should present themselves well, meaning they should be clean and dust-free. I have been known to grab a vacuum from the “break room” or “the lab” to vacuum out exam lanes even at places where I do a fill-in day! Dusting is also a biggie for me. Who wants to go to a medical office as a patient and see dusty shelves or equipment?

The medical profession prides itself on cleanliness and a sterile environment. I am not saying the place has to be like an operating room, but again, dust on the shelves or equipment, or fall leaves, paper scraps and tissues on the carpet are a no-no. If you see these, break out the vacuum, wet a paper towel (if no other dusting supplies are available) and clean it up. If your patients don’t thank you, your allergies will. Also, don’t forget to sanitize equipment, your desk, the exam chair and its surrounding surfaces with the proper disinfectants on a regular basis to help prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria.

Educate Staff: When you are surrounded by knowledgeable people, it makes them and you feel good, and they will take extra pride in their work. Take the time to explain common eye conditions, diseases and problems to techs, office managers and even opticians. Techs should be able to describe basic terms like nearsightedness, farsightedness, presbyopia and astigmatism. They should also know about floaters, cataracts, retinal tears and detachments, macular degeneration and glaucoma.

The list could go on and on. Having background knowledge of these and other conditions will help them better understand the needs of patients and why we do certain testing. It may also help them triage patients better during emergencies by asking the right questions. If those in the optical have a basic understanding of things like glaucoma, cataracts and diabetic retinopathy (to name a few) it will lend them a better explanation to relay to patients as to why they should be receiving yearly eye health exams instead of just trying to sneak by and duplicate the Rx in that old pair of glasses that broke.

Organize: One simple organization task from which I think all practices could benefit is discarding contact lens trials, sample medications and diagnostic drops that have expired. At some practices you might be surprised at the dates you can find on some of the soft contact lens trials lying around, especially when the brand is not one commonly prescribed at the practice. Get rid of them. De-clutter. If you are an employed OD, always seek permission from the office manager before you throw away or reorganize anything, and don’t try to start this at a place where you are just filling in on a one-time, or rare, instance. But it’s a nice thing to do at a practice where you work on a regular basis.

Once you have discarded expired contact lens trials, you could then take inventory to see what you think may need to be re-stocked. Make an itemized list by manufacturer, then break it into lens type, size, and then the powers you need to have re-stocked under each size. The list should be legible and neatly organized so that the office manager or a tech will have no problem seeing what they need to order from the rep or distributor. Be sure to only re-stock brands you know you and the other doctors at the practice prescribe on a fairly regular basis.

Putting in a request for more pharmaceutical samples is another thing you could do to help re-stock and organize the office. Sometimes companies require you to fill out a form and fax or e-mail in the request with your signature and license number. This is because they only supply a limited number of pharmaceutical samples to each doctor at a practice in a given period of time. For example, you may be able to place a request for new samples from a certain company in limited quantities every six months. If you are an employed OD, check the “rules” with your office manager, or each pharmaceutical drug rep, and make sure you are getting everything for which you are eligible. Your patients without insurance, or in dire need of drops, will thank you immensely.

Educate Yourself: Down time in the office is a perfect time to catch up on all of those optometric trade magazines that you’ve been receiving in the mail, but have yet to free from their plastic bags. Find out about the latest trends and products. Take a CE course or quiz in one of the magazines or online. Some optometry schools offer full CE courses that are nicely presented online and for which you can get CE credit. Check your local requirements and make sure they match up with what you are taking online or for the mail-in quiz/course if the only reason you are doing it is to gain more credits toward your license renewal.

If you’d rather seek more knowledge in person, consider spending your down time searching and registering online for the next big optometry event or symposium in your region like Vision Expo East or West. You may also want consider joining your local optometric association to receive CE credits, brush up on the latest in techniques, procedures and prescribing and to network with other optometrists in the area.

I recently spent some of my down time at the office looking through a presentation on rigid gas permeable fittings that an optometry school had posted online. I felt the need to re-educate myself on fitting RGP lenses since in one of my new positions I have performed more RGP fits in the last four months than I have in the last 12 years! I found the web site to be a great refresher to get me thinking about things I haven’t thought about since optometry school. Although I didn’t read about RGPs for CE credit, it was still an efficient use of my time as I did it to sharpen my skill set so that I’d be that much more prepared for the challenge of my next RGP patient.

If all else is done (or even if you have done one of the above tasks to the best of your ability for the day) and you find yourself still with more down time left, you maybe could catch up on some leisure reading to relax your mind, body and spirit, so don’t forget to pack your favorite book to bring into work. Or you could consider switching around end-of-the-day appointments, if possible, so that you could leave early for the day! I always enjoy the chance to drive home during daylight hours. Down time feels like it is truly yours once you have left the office. Sometimes leaving a little early for the day can allow for a productive personal day which will in turn allow you to return a happier and more rejuvenated you for your next day of seeing patients.

Remember, above all else, don’t be too hard on yourself. We all deserve a little down time now and again. After the amount of times we have to “kick it into overdrive” during a busy day seeing patients at the office, it is nice to be able to “downshift into a lower gear” once in a while. However, there is a way to balance down time at the office so that you don’t feel like a total slacker.

How do you spend down time at the office? What do you find most productive for you and the staff to do? Do you feel down time should be spent doing personal things to relax instead of things that could benefit the office, or is there a balance? How do you feel down time can be used to help achieve a better work-life balance?


Cheryl G. Murphy, OD, practices in Glen Cove, Syosset and Bethpage, N.Y. You can like her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @murphyod. To contact her:




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