Business consultant Michael Jacobs reflects on lessons learnt from a high profile career in optics, giving mivision his ‘two cents worth’ on the future for independent optometry, Australian-style. In the first of a two part article he talks about the importance of patient communication.
Attracting new patients to your practice is an expensive and time consuming activity yet surprisingly many practices spend more time planning and executing their advertising campaigns to attract new patients than they spend on retaining existing patients. If you analyse why patients don’t return to your practice you can almost always trace the cause to poor communication. Even those patients who don’t return, claiming your prices are too high, are most likely the victims of poor communication – a failure by your practice to demonstrate the value that you actually deliver and not just the price that you charge.
Communication is a two-way dialogue involving both listening and talking. Further, communication is not simply words – it is so much more than speaking to your patients. Communication is the sum total of all your actions and those of your staff when in contact with the patient, from initial contact through to recalls. To understand how important appropriate communication with your patient is, it is vital that you put yourself in the shoes of a typical patient in your practice and try to see things from their perspective.
We can look at the communications cycle in six logical steps for ease of analysis and discussion:
Patients are often fearful of the unknown and these simple steps can alleviate that…
- Initial contact
- First appointment
- Dispenser handover
- Payment and exit
- Spectacle delivery
- Follow-up communication
In this article I will offer my thoughts on a few elements of ‘initial contact’ and the ‘first appointment’.
Regardless of how you first make contact with a patient, initial impressions are often lasting impressions. The oft-stated maxim of not judging a book by its cover is good in theory but in reality most people walk away from an initial contact with a lasting impression.
Your advertising, your web page, your Facebook page and your patient brochures should all carry a consistent image and message. That message needs to clearly identify who you are and what your point of difference is compared to the other optometrists in your area. Do not, under any circumstances, use newsletters or brochures that have not been professionally designed and printed. If your communications are amateurish, what does this say about your service?
It is important that a potential new patient receives special attention. This is not to say that existing patients should be disadvantaged but rather, that their circumstances are different. Typically, a new patient will call the practice in response to your advertising or via a referral from an existing patient. It is important to immediately establish whether or not they are an existing or new patient. As a potential new patient there are some things that should be avoided. First, never put a new patient on hold. Second, get their name and phone number in case you have to call them back. Third, do not ask too many questions. Let the patient ask the questions and answer all questions honestly and openly. Finally, remember your primary goal is to get the patient to make an appointment.
Prepare the New Patient
Once the patient has made an appointment you can start preparing them for their first visit to your practice. There are a number of ways you can do this including mail, email or via your website.
To put the new patient at ease and to make your staff’s job easier, provide the patient with the following:
- When their appointment is and how long it could take (possibly add a warning about driving if you regularly dilate your patients). This is important when considering parking or follow-on appointments.
- What to bring to their first appointment.
- What to expect during a typical clinical eye examination.
- Where your practice is located and your phone number in case they need to change their appointment.
- What your clinical fees are for an initial consultation. If you routinely perform retinal imagery, then include these fees too. The rule of thumb should always be – NO SURPRISES.
A first-time patient at your practice deserves special treatment. Some practices go out of their way to identify new patients with a name tag or some other simple identifier. All staff then pay particular attention to the new patient, taking extra time to explain how the practice operates and what the steps are in the journey through their first appointment. Patients are often fearful of the unknown and these simple steps can alleviate that fear and hopefully put them at ease.
I personally believe that all staff should wear name badges. I have a terrible memory for names and I often forget a person’s name who has only just been introduced to me. This makes me uncomfortable when communicating with that individual but this is not an issue if the staff member wears a name badge. It also helps identify who staff members are in a busy practice.
I recall discussing the issue of name badges with an optometrist who stated with some considerable confidence that all his patients knew him so he didn’t need to wear a name badge. I asked if he remembered the name of all his patients, which of course he didn’t. However he had the benefit of a patient file in front of him. The patient on the other hand may only see the optometrist once every two or more years and yet the optometrist expected the patient would remember his name. The result can be a patient spending more time trying to remember the optometrist’s name than they spend listening to the optometrist’s professional advice. Names are important.
Equally important for a first appointment is finding out as much as possible about your new patient. The ubiquitous name, date of birth, address and Medicare number are mandatory of course but does your practice record information about your patient’s profession, hobbies and family? Surely these are critical to making informed observations and recommendations about their future eye care and eye wear. This information should be available on the patient’s record in the practice management system and not just in the optometrist’s notes so it can be shared with all staff members.
Finally, ask the patient how they wish to be communicated with in the future. How should recalls be sent? Mail, email, SMS or telephone call? Is the patient interested in receiving eye health information or new product information from the practice (ie. would they like to opt in to marketing communications)? This also provides the opportunity to collect email addresses, which some people are reluctant to provide if there is no justification.
I have specifically avoided discussing the communication between the optometrist and the new patient in the examination room as this is a separate and extensive subject in its own right.
Next month I will share my thoughts on communications at dispenser handover
Michael Jacobs is a business consultant and columnist for mivision. He was the former Chief Executive Officer of Eyecare Plus for 10 years until early 2015.