Today’s guest blogger is Ms. Toni Bristol. Toni is a Senior Consultant and the President of Expansion Consultants Inc. She served as COVD’s Public Relations Consultant from 2003-2016 and was awarded the President’s Award in 2003, 2008, and 2015 for her many contributions to COVD. Photos courtesy of Dr. Ashley Gentrup’s office.

This pandemic has presented many challenges. I know you have been forced to make some very difficult decisions, furloughing staff, etc. Now, returning to work and seeing patients presents even more challenges. In this post I list out some of the key challenges and potential solutions.

Preparing and educating your staff and patients for protocol changes

Before reopening it is imperative that the entire staff is educated on any and all new protocols in place regarding PPE and office sanitization, and that they are comfortable and understand all changes. The more confident your staff is, the more comfortable those patients returning to the office will be! Be proud of your dedication to patient safety, and have new processes documented and available to anyone who requests it. Be sure to be stocked and ready with PPE and any necessary products and equipment.

Staff and PPE: Discuss PPE requirements and what is mandated. At a minimum, practices must align with any governmental requirements but also look to your patient population and what will provide them with confidence.

Workstation sanitation: Will this change for you? Or will it be more regulated? Be sure everyone understands what their role is, when it must be done and that they can communicate it confidently to your patients.

Waiting room changes: Be sure to communicate with your patients any changes that have been implemented (fewer seats in waiting room, waiting outside and texting upon arrival). How will staff enforce when or if needed?

Patients and PPE: Be sure requirements are shared with your patients before they arrive at your office. Be sure the staff is comfortable enforcing the changes. Will you provide required PPE in the office if patients don’t have it? If yes, be sure you have enough in stock.

Preparedness Guidelines

Many of national and state optometric associations throughout the US have provided excellent resources for their members which are available online.  If your optometric association has not given you any guidelines you may want to consider looking at the American Optometric Association’s Optometric Practice Reactivation Preparedness Guide.

Getting back to your prior VT schedule

Assuming patients are comfortable returning to the office, the first challenge is how to handle your patient flow so you can see enough patients to be profitable. If you haven’t already thought of it, here is a new model for you to consider.

How you address this depends on how large a VT room you have and how easy it will be to maintain the appropriate social distancing and disinfecting. If your VT space is large enough, you’re all set. But otherwise, I suggest that if you have been able to provide telehealth-VT, keep it up. Alternate your VT schedule so patients come into the office every other week and do telehealth VT the alternate weeks. This way everyone has a weekly session and you are able to keep a reduced office load.

Since most schools are closed through the end of the school year, there should be some flexibility schedule-wise so this can be done.

Scheduling new evaluations

Hopefully, you have a number of evaluations that were already on the schedule prior to having to close your office. Ideally, all that has to happen is for your staff to reach out to them and they reschedule. But what if they don’t?

You can offer choices to help the parent/patient feel more comfortable; such as:

  • Offer to do the initial history discussion over telehealth video conferencing and only have the patient in the office for those tests which can only be done in person. The rest is performed through telehealth.
  • Offer to have the conference with the doctor to discuss the results and treatment recommendations through a telehealth video conference.
  • Consider offering a FREE telehealth video conference with the doctor and the patient (when an adult), one or both parents for pediatric patients, to discuss the problems the patient is having and then to educate the person you are speaking with regarding the need for an in-office evaluation.

If the person is still unwilling to come to the office at the end of the free video conference, you can discuss some things that can be done to help while they are waiting to come to the office. For example, we know almost everyone is spending significantly more time on the computer and other digital devices, so you could discuss the 20-20-20 rule. You can also adapt the rule for the patient. If the patient has severe problems with attention, consider changing it to taking a break every 5 minutes, etc.

Working with your referral sources

Ideally you had active referral sources prior to all of this. As soon as you have a good feel for when you will be opening up, be sure to reach out to your referral sources, find out how they are doing, see if you can help in any way, and also let them know when you will resume seeing patients. If you have been seeing their patients via telehealth VT, be sure to give the doctor a quick update on those patients.

If potential new patients schedule, great. However, if they call but don’t schedule (and your staff are addressing these calls appropriately) I recommend offering the free telehealth video conference with the doctor. As a reminder, I presented a 2-hour course, Boost Practice Growth Through Patient Adherence, at the COVD meeting a couple of years ago. One of the subjects I discuss is how to schedule new evaluations. This talk is available through Digivision, just click here.

Revisiting your internal communication systems

While new health and safety protocols are being implemented to deal with the novel coronavirus, now is also a good time to evaluate how well your internal communication systems were working. If they were working well, put them back in place. If they were not as successful as you would like, now could be a good time to rework them.

Daily staff meetings are a good way to review how the new health and safety procedures are working. They also provide the opportunity to talk about patient flow and discuss any challenges staff are experiencing in handling telephone calls. Find out how many inquiries they have received and how many of those patients have scheduled. If they didn’t schedule, find out what concerns were presented and how they addressed it.

Remind your staff about why you are all there and help keep them focused on your purpose or mission statement. Talk about how successful your patients have been doing with their telehealth-VT. If you did not offer telehealth, then share some successes from patients seen prior to March.

We are all being challenged with adapting to these new ways of life. May your transition to re-opening your practice go smoothly. And may you, your staff, patients, and families be well!