by Meghan Murray, Illinois College of Optometry Trustee-elect

by Meghan Murray, Illinois College of Optometry Trustee-elect

With the incorporation of technology within almost every sector of business, medical fields, such as optometry, are no exception. As advances in online refractions are starting to hit markets, there is still one key aspect that will always set us apart from the latest online refraction: the doctor-patient relationship.

It is my belief the most important skill to building the trust between patient and doctor is through the skill of patient communication. Building trust and rapport with patients is established through effective communication, a skill necessary for both optometrists and other practitioners.

Working as an ophthalmic technician for four years prior to entering optometry school, I was fortunate to encounter hundreds of patients, each with a unique personality and personal goal for their appointments. Entering optometry school I thought: “I don’t know much about optics but I can surely talk to a patient.” The truth is, even with all of the past experience I’ve had, I’m still working on this skill.

Going into my second year at ICO, I am truly taking off my technician hat and putting on my clinician hat. I can already feel the nervousness as I will be seen as the doctor interacting with my patient rather than a tech aiding in the examination. Thus, I want to arm myself with tools to better communicate with my patients and make the exam go smoothly. I know it is the communication skills that will take a single patient exam into a patient/doctor relationship that could potentially last for years.

I spoke with Katherine Lynch, O.D., who was my optometry professor first year and who spoke with our class on patient communication. I asked her, “How can student clinicians better communicate with their patients, to make both patient and doctor feel comfortable?” Her advice was excellent and she told me something that will always stick in the back of my mind: “You may be nervous, but they are looking to you to care for them and address their concerns. It’s not a test, it’s a person.” Communication is crucial to having a strong relationship with our patients and it will set us apart from impersonal technologies that will come and go. Patient communication is a skill we can all work on.

It’s the communication with our patients and relationships we build with them that make us true providers of care. Therefore, we do not need to be scared of technology, since this is something technology will never provide to our patients. A special thank you to Dr. Lynch for her clinical pearls of wisdom.

Communication: Tips for Success
Katherine Lynch, O.D. offers some great tips to utilize during examinations that can strengthen communication skills with our patients.

1) Be organized and establish an “exam flow.”
This falls into the category of non-verbal communication. Having your equipment set up and organized in a way that makes your exam “flow” smoothly will set the patient at ease. Rather than digging into that briefcase looking for the next thing you need, already have it prepared and ready to go. This makes your saves you time (which is always key for students). In addition, Dr. Lynch raises another valid point, which is to “pay attention to room factors that detract from their experience (leaving them behind the phoropter, leaving the foot rest up, etc.).”

2) Make the patient feel comfortable and listen to the patient.
This was a big theme throughout all the tips and it sounds simple, but it goes a long way. Introduce yourself and make that initial connection. As my father always says, “the first thing I always do at the start of an exam is “sit down and listen.” These are words my father has lived by in his career as a physician. The exam is in the details and getting to know your patients can prove to be beneficial. Sometimes, that “off-handed” conversation with your patient can lead you to a diagnosis. Get to know the patient, their background (both medically and socially) in addition to their chief complaints. After all, your diagnosis and treatment will only be helpful if your patient trusts you, not only as doctor but as a person.

3) Give them a roadmap BEFORE you start.
Let the patient be an active participant in his or her own exam. It is important to not only address their expectations, but your expectations as well. Explain to them your plan and goals for the exam before you start. If something comes up that warrants a further test, explain what you are doing before you actually do it. Dr. Lynch also makes a good point to tell them a basic plan of the exam after the chief complaint, including dilation if warranted. “No one likes a surprise dilation chat AFTER they have been there for an hour.”

4) Read your audience.
Constantly asking yourself “What is the patient’s main goal for today’s exam?” and answering it throughout the exam process is important. A patient may come in for blurry vision and you may find something that needs to be addressed first. Explaining the patient your plan and how this addresses the patient’s chief complaint is important to always show that you are “in tune with their needs.”

In addition, a lot of the communication in the exam room is non-verbal. Though a patient may be speaking the words “I’m doing fine,” when their back is tight and shoulders are to their ears, this may say, “I’m kind of freaking out here.”