Retain Patients Through Effective Communication

The way you communicate with and present your practice to patients can earn you patients for life.

Retain Patients Through Effective Communication

The way you communicate with and present your practice to patients can earn you patients for life.

In today's world of the contact lens consumer, we must communicate effectively, beginning with our first interaction with the patient (usually on the phone) and until the patient purchases his lenses and beyond. I've found that a main reason why eyecare practitioners lose patients is poor communication. I always ask new patients why they left their previous eyecare practitioner. More times than not, they state that their previous doctor didn't talk to them and explain eye and lens care properly. Another comment that I hear far too often is, "The staff didn't answer all of my questions and they weren't professional." Patients hardly ever mention the fees that their previous practitioner charged for services and/or materials.

I'll discuss how the doctors and staff at our practice communicate with patients in a way that helped us build one of the largest contact lens practices in the country.

Make the Right First Impression

Effective patient communication almost always starts on the phone. Managing tough situations properly is the key here. Following are a few examples of how to answer common questions that patients call to ask.

The Cost Question When patients ask, "How much do you charge for contact lenses?" we answer with questions such as, "Do you have astigmatism?" "Do you want to sleep in lenses?" "Do you need a different prescription for reading than you do for distance?" Patients want to feel that the office cares about them and their particular needs. Our phone staff members always give a potential patient their name and ask for the caller's name. We tell callers our base fee only after we engage them in this kind of conversation.

We do tell callers, "Our contact lens exam fees start at x dollars and increase depending on the complexity of the case." We explain to the caller that we base the doctor's fees on the time needed and the complexity of the evaluation. If the caller doesn't make an appointment, then we offer to send contact lens information in the mail.

Looking for Refills Take the opportunity to turn negative patient encounters into positive ones. As an example, a patient calls asking for more boxes of his disposable lenses and his prescription expired six months ago. You can tell him, "We're sorry, your prescription expired and you need to come in for an exam before we can give you new boxes." I'm sure many offices do this all the time. But just think of yourself as a patient calling your family doctor when you're sick and asking for a prescription and he tells you that it's been more than a year since you last came in and that he can't help you until you come to his office. "Our first appointment is a week from Tuesday." A better way is to say, "You're in luck, we have a pair of diagnostic lenses that we can give you until we can see you for an appointment. We have an opening in two days."

Tips for Phone Staff We maintain a separate area for our phone intake calls so that our phone staff aren't disturbed and can spend enough time building trust with callers. We ask intake staff members to smile while speaking on the phone with patients and we place a mirror in front of each one so they can watch their facial expressions while taking calls.

Following a lens fitting, all patients receive a call the next evening from our "Happy Caller" to ask how they're doing with the new lenses and whether they have any questions or concerns. We've picked the staff member who has the best phone skills to do this and we try to place these calls in the evening.

Office First Impressions When patients arrive for their appointment at our office, a reception room filled with contact lens information greets them. Pamphlets and brochures from contact lens companies as well as others that we've produced are plentiful. We want patients to know that we're contact lens specialists from the start.

We teach our technicians to discuss contact lenses with all patients in the pre-testing area. Our technicians also apply and remove all patient lenses and can over-refract and use a biomicroscope to evaluate fit.

Was it Something You Said?

We never use a number of common terms when talking about contact lenses. For instance, we discuss contact lens "evaluations," not contact lens "fits." We call our lenses "diagnostic," rather than "trial" lenses. We provide "contact lens lessons,"

not "application and removal training." We prescribe "oxygen permeable" lenses, not "gas permeable" lenses. We've made these terminology changes to instill in patients that contact lenses are medical devices and should be treated as such.

We've also changed some of our terminology to make it easier for patients to understand. For example, we call soft toric lenses "soft lenses that correct astigmatism" and soft multifocal lenses "soft bifocal lenses."

Tell Patients What's New

We have the following contact lens philosophy: Always try a new contact lens product on a patient every time he comes in. We have so many new contact lenses available now that it's easy to justify taking the time and effort to upgrade your patients. We always tell patients that when they return for their next exam, we'll probably have new and better contact lenses that we can evaluate. This makes most patients look forward to coming to the practice every year. If you keep giving each patient the same product every time he comes in, then he'll probably spread out his visits because he has little motivation to visit regularly.

We also look forward to hard-to-fit patients and try to use multifocal contact lenses for all presbyopes. Just imagine one of your patients discussing the new multifocal contact lens you prescribed with a friend whose eye doctor never mentioned the new lens — you might gain the friend as a patient, too. Even if patients don't upgrade to a new modality, they appreciate your effort and your time in discussing and trying the new product. We also always try to dispense a year's supply of lenses and direct ship the lenses to the patient's home.

Features vs. Benefits

When communicating with your patients about contact lenses, talk about features but sell benefits. Most patients don't look forward to putting lenses on their eyes, so we need to emphasize all the benefits that come with contact lenses, such as freedom from eyeglasses, looking younger, improvement of athletic skills and the ability to wake up and see clearly.

Let's discuss how we should talk to a patient about an Acuvue Advance (Vistakon) lens as an example. Your patient states that he's comfortable in his Acuvue 2 lens and just wants more lenses. We would reply, "We now have a lens that transmits three times more oxygen than your current lens (this is a feature). Because of this, your eyes will stay healthier and whiter (the benefit). This new lens blocks out 99 percent of UV radiation (a feature). This will help slow or prevent the development of cataracts and macular degeneration (the benefit). The new lens has a molecule called Hydraclear which helps keep the lens wet (a feature). This will help to provide all-day comfort (the benefit). This feature and benefit philosophy will work with any of the new contact lenses.

Explaining Exam Fees

Of course not every patient will want to switch into a different contact lens regardless of its improved benefits. How do you respond to a patient who asks, when ready to pay his bill, "Why are you charging me for a contact lens fit? The doctor just gave me the same lenses as last year."

You can avoid this question by educating the patient in the exam room during the contact lens evaluation process. When a contact lens-wearing patient calls for an appointment, we always ask him to wear his contact lenses to the office. During my evaluation, I mention that we perform testing procedures unique to patients who wear contact lenses. I also state that it's important to perform these procedures at least every six months.

Educating patients in this way creates a positive feeling. Patients appreciate the time you take to explain to them about how their contact lenses relate to their eye health. I mention about how I look for corneal swelling, new vessel growth, lens movement, etc. Many of these problems appear less frequently in our office today because of the many new lenses on the market and because of our philosophy to always try to upgrade patients to new lens materials.

We never call this process a "contact lens fitting" even if we change the type of contact lenses that a patient wears. We always call it a "contact lens evaluation" and mention that our fees for this part of the exam are based on time and skill level required. If we make no change in the contact lens type, then we usually tell the patient that we're reducing our evaluation fee by x dollars. We also mention that this fee includes the patient's next six-month follow-up visit as it relates to his contact lenses.

Every Patient is Special

In today�s world of managed care and direct mail competition, the only way to prosper is by making patients feel special. They need to leave your office feeling as if they got more than they expected. Just satisfying patients isn�t and never was enough. Using some of these techniques will certainly help to make your patients think of you and your staff in a more positive way and hopefully will encourage them to enthusiastically refer others to your practice.

Dr. Davis heads a team of optometrists, ophthalmologist and opticians in a private practice in Pembroke Pines, FL. He's an adjunct clinical professor at Nova Southeastern College of Optometry and Pennsylvania College of Optometry. He lectures nationally and internationally on contact lenses, sports vision, computer vision, practice management and ocular disease treatment.