Eye care practitioners continue to respond with unconventional methods to help them stay in touch with patients during this uncertain situation. Data trends show that optometrists have re-opening on their mind but are unsure on how to put that into action. Also, many ODs are dealing with unemployment and furlough complications. Optometrists are even unsure how COVID-19 will continue to impact their continuing education options in the future.

The 6th wave of Jobson’s Coronavirus ECP Survey, conducted from April 16 to 19, reported on the most recent responses to the epidemic at large.

Getting Used to Telehealth

According to the most recent responses, optometrists are still keeping up with patients while maintaining their distance with phone calls and video consultations. The survey notes that 82.2% of optometrists are now conducting video/image consultations, a steady increase from 74.3% and 78.6% reported in the 4th and 5th wave surveys, respectively. ODs are also upping their mobile app use, as 23.8% are now engaging in the service, compared with just 18.1% at the end of March.

The crisis continues to push doctors to offer telehealth services, considering only 5% were on board during the first wave of the survey, and now 29% have started providing this option. This correlates with a similar increase in patients’ curiosity in accessing remote services, as 42.6% of patients reported currently expressed interest, compared with 29.8% a month ago.

Optometrists have gotten used to billing telehealth consultations as well, as the initial 26% who were comfortable with billing telehealth has grown to about 65% of respondents who have done so in the past two weeks. Fewer ODs are seeking help with their billing questions, as only 27.4% said they needed help during this 6th wave. 

As Close to Normal

A question on every optometrist’s mind is when they can resume business as usual—as usual as possible, at least. In the 6th wave, about 65% of respondents either identified as an owner or decision-maker in charge of office access. This wave saw a slight dip from 60.5% to 55.8% in ODs believing they could start to see their patients in-person in May, and more see June as a feasible time, with 24.8% increasing to 29.9% since the last inquiry.

ODs believe the most helpful information is anything that helps them prepare for re-opening. Currently, 69.5% of optometrists would greatly appreciate guidance—a steady increase from the 48.2% who said the same at the start of the survey. Some optometrists (43.2%) are working on a written plan for re-opening, and many intend to use phone calls, social media and email to communicate to patients when their practice has re-opened.

Among the changes that ODs expect to implement for their eventual return to normal clinical care, the ones that resonate the most with optometrists include staff wearing gloves and masks, reducing the number of people in the office at the same time, changing sanitization processes and screening patients for COVID-19 risk factors. When their practices do re-open, about 44% of respondents believe their hours of operation will resume at their normal schedule, while 25.6% believe they’ll initially operate with shortened hours. 

Reality of Layoffs

Another unfortunate impact on businesses is staff downsizing. The survey shows 60.5% have admitted to letting go or laying off staff, a sizable increase from 40.8% at the end of March. About 18% of respondents to the survey said they were recently furloughed or laid off, and 86.4% of them have applied for unemployment. This number is a drastic increase from the 31.1% who admitted to applying for unemployment in the survey’s 5th wave. Still, the amount of those seeking to understand unemployment resources has decreased from 43.8% to 35.1% among recent respondents.

Regarding the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, about 80% of practice owners said they have applied for aid through the relief package. This also has increased dramatically from the 49.6% that said they had applied for benefits earlier this month.

On the Road Again

The 6th wave survey added a question regarding travel and when optometrists would feel comfortable travelling to industry events and meetings.

The majority of respondents feel ready to attend events within driving distance by the fall of this year (25.5%) or sometime in 2021 (25.1%). Only 19.5% find the summer of this year as a possibility for travel, while 14.7% remain unsure. As for air travel, 33.1% of respondents said they’ll feel comfortable going to meetings by plane sometime in 2021. Those unsure comprised the next highest response with 21.7%, and 19.4% saw the fall of 2020 as a possibility.