In the fall of 2001, a few weeks after the September 11th attacks, President Bush addressed a dumbfounded nation to explain how we’d respond. America would get through it by “the patient accumulation of successes,” he said. These would happen on many different fronts—some overt and public, others less so. Some successes would come quickly, others frustratingly late, if ever.

I think everyone, regardless of their political opinions, can agree that was the right way to frame it. Without a nation-state enemy that could be decisively defeated, Americans were told to brace for an unconventional, unpredictable era. 

The response to COVID-19 will also follow a tenuous and gradual path. Plans will be provisional, progress will be fitful and daily life will continue to be laden with anxiety. 

Such is the unenviable environment optometrists find as many return to their offices this month. No surprise, then, that tensions are running high. Eyecare practitioners (two-thirds of them ODs, the rest mostly opticians) responding to a survey conducted by Jobson rated their stress level when thinking about their businesses at a 7 on a 1-10 scale. Asked how much longer their practices could survive the shutdown, 43% answered just a month or less.

Clearly, the desire to get on with life is compelling. But, when reopening, don’t set the bar at “business as usual.” Instead, be content with the string of small successes that come as you learn to adapt: working out a disinfecting protocol that’s easy to perform a dozen or more times a day, rejiggering your exam techniques to minimize proximity to patients, mastering the arcana of coding for telemedicine, and so on. There are plenty of new things to master—let these small victories build momentum and motivation. Combined, they begin to solve the inherent paradox optometry practices now face: bringing in enough people to thrive financially, but also few enough to keep everyone safe from exposure. 

That challenge is upending decades of traditional habits. Among respondents to the Jobson survey, 84% plan to take temperatures of patients, 62% will limit dispensary access and 61% will ask contact lens wearers to do their own insertions. And optometry practices will be awash in personal protective equipment (PPE). Almost nine out of 10 doctors plan to use gloves, masks, face shields, gowns and goggles, as well as offer masks and gloves to staff and patients when appropriate. 

If there’s any silver lining to all that PPE and precaution, maybe it’s that more patients—and, dare I say, more ophthalmologists?—will perceive you as a frontline medical professional and not just the place to go to buy a pair of glasses. Your practice is going to look and feel a lot more medical, regardless of how many drug prescriptions you write.

How long these new protocols will be needed is anyone’s guess. Until there’s a lower rate of transmission, or a vaccine developed and widely available, they seem prudent. For the near term, “back to business” won’t mean “back to normal.” Just take it one day, and one success, at a time.