One long-standing complaint about health care in the US is how little time patients get in front of their doctors. As patients, we fill out as much information as possible before the visit, nurses and techs record the history and perform any testing, then the doctor comes in for the big finale—and spends most of the time with their back to you as they enter their notes in the EHR. Something as fundamentally personal as a visit to the doctor is steadily losing its human connection.

But optometry has been able to buck that trend. You’d be hard-pressed to find another medical profession where the doctors spend such a generous amount of time with their patients. This is one of optometry’s great strengths, and perhaps its Achilles’ heel. Because if the profession is to grow—taking on the lion’s share of primary eye care, which the trends plainly show is the only feasible way to meet demand—ODs will have to cede some of that precious face time.

Optometrists have maintained their close rapport with patients while other doctors have seen more and more intermediaries wedged in between. Optometry’s success here is not something anyone is keen to lose. The trick, obviously, is to preserve that patient connection while letting staff members play a bigger role. 

In the somewhat controversial AOA manpower study released earlier this year, respondents said they could take on about 20 more patient visits per week, adding 32% more exams to their schedule—without adding office hours or staff members. Practice circumstances will vary, but that sounds like a compelling case for more robust use of optometric staff. 

This month’s special series on staff management seeks to help you hire, develop and retain talented staff—the sort of professionals that you’ll be proud to see take on some of the work you might otherwise feel the need to handle personally.

Delegate, Don’t Abdicate
Entrusting some of the more routine elements of the patient encounter to others is surely a good place to start looking for productivity gains. “Your job as an optometrist is to interpret data, not to collect it,” writes Kara Gibbs, OD, in her article on staff delegation (page 42 of the print issue or click here). Let qualified staff members acquire the data, so that you can concentrate on acting upon it.

Might that even extend to refractions? Handing over the keys to the phoropter doesn’t sit well with most optometrists, understandably. It’s an essential service, the one that gave optometry its name, and—rightly or wrongly—what’s most often associated with the profession. But it’s a time-consuming procedure and some argue that the doctor’s expertise might be put to better use if devoted to clinical decision making. In this month’s Review of Cornea & Contact Lenses, practice management guru Gary Gerber, OD, even goes so far as to advocate delegating not just refractions but contact lens fits too. 

Everyone will have a different comfort level with the thought of delegating such core components, but it’s something to hash out, both philosophically and pragmatically. 

Hiring good people and then keeping them in the fold creates much-needed stability that allows the practice to hum along busily, while enhancing the patient experience. Familiarity is especially comforting to those in need of medical care. You’ve chosen optometry as a life-long endeavour, but maybe not everyone in your practice has; medical staff tend to drift among practices and professions.

To keep staff turnover from wiping out your productivity, encourage that same sort of commitment to optometry in your team. “Our staff considers what they do a career, not a job,” Alan Bishop, OD, says in the article on tech certification (page 36 of the print issue or click here). Invest in them and they’ll not only perform better, they’ll stick around. In his article on staff recruitment and retention (page 28 of the print issue or click here), Brian Rogoff, OD, stresses staff development, not mere training. “A dog can be trained, but an individual who can make independent decisions and contributions should be developed.”

That—educated, motivated team members who act independently and enable your clinical decisions—ideally creates the continuity of care you want patients to experience. Even if you aren’t always the one on the other side of the chair.