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Lessons Learned from COVID-19

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, our norms have shifted and changed, and we quickly had to learn and adapt to the “new normal.” Starting with the sudden shut down of the economy, eye care professionals had to quickly find their footing in a constantly changing environment. When practices were finally allowed to reopen, doctors learned that many things had changed drastically. Jacquie Bowen, OD, recognized many changes, but the changes to her “bedside manner” surprised her. Not only is she dressed head to toe in PPE gear, which hindered some face-to-face interaction, but her patients are also in masks. She now finds herself over-annunciating patient orders and being overly expressive with her eyes, so her patients can feel more at ease.

“It’s awkward, but it’s the new normal.”

Responding to the “New Normal”

Many healthcare practitioners are finding this to be part of their new daily routine. While we’re all excited that the majority of eye care practices have been allowed to reopen, it introduces several new things to consider. Barbara L. Horn, OD, American Optometric Association (AOA) president, says,

“As our nation’s and our profession’s response to the crisis enters a new phase, it is critical that doctors of optometry are able to provide the care patients are seeking in a safe and healthy environment.”

What Does a “Safe and Healthy Environment” Look Like?

For those practices that have returned to seeing more than just emergency patients, the AOA has created a new list of guidelines to follow. The number one recommendation: follow state/county guidelines. We know this may seem obvious, but it’s an important point to call out. The AOA recommends staying in touch with local health authorities to make sure your office remains compliant and so you know what steps you need to take to prepare for daily practice.Eye care is essential care.

Another great resource for “new normal” practice operations is the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)’s new regulations. Chris Wroten, OD, AOA Federal Relations Committee member, who leads the #AskAOA webinar focused on optometry practice reopening, said,

“Eye health and vision care is essential care without question, but we have to do everything reasonable to ensure the safety of our patients, staff and even ourselves as we begin to resume providing that level of care once again.”

The “new normal” also means extra cleaning between patients and following social distancing procedures. That means scheduling patients in a way that won’t overcrowd the practice and disinfecting trial frames. AOA President-elect William T. Reynolds, OD, suggests prioritizing patients with the greatest need/urgency in the earliest available appointment slots.

Additionally, many practices are taking temperatures before signing in, and of course, patients are required to wear masks. Dr. Bowen says she has included it on all her pre-appointment paperwork. This brings up another important piece of the puzzle: patient communication.

“It’s on every patient form that they need to bring a mask, that we’re taking patient temperatures, and if it’s above 100 then we won’t see them. Once you’ve established your rules, stick to them.”

Communicating Reopening to Patients

Even with all these safety protocols in place, some patients may continue to be wary of returning to regularly scheduled eye exams. Dr. Horn noted in an article on the AOA’s website that there are still a lot of questions and uncertainty, and eye care professionals “need to reinforce the trust patients have in doctors of optometry and give them the confidence that we are doing everything we can to protect everyone’s health and safety by communicating clearly.”

Communication Is Key

Are you taking temperatures as patients come into your pracitce?

“Communication with patients is always important, but absolutely critical right now,” says Amber Dunn, OD. In addition to her standard pre-appointment paperwork, which has all moved to digital copies only, she has her patients complete COVID-wellness forms which must be completed before the patient is seen. She also has posters explaining their updated cleaning process and new welcoming procedures which include temperature scans and hand sanitation.

Understanding and compassion are two of Dr. Dunn’s keys to success. Her first question to patients is often “How are you?”, and she stressed that while some patients are anxious to get back into the practice, some patients just aren’t ready.

“If they say, ‘we’re still not ready’ then we say we understand, we’re putting you on the list and will be contacting you soon. We’re taking the extra step to let them know we understand if they’re scared and it’s OK if they won’t want to come in yet. We don’t want to shame anybody for being wary.”

Some patients just want to know the practice is open, while others may want to know the whole rundown of what you and your staff are doing to maintain their safety. The common response: a short and sweet initial message, but if patients need more information, tell them what they want to know. Christopher Wolfe, OD, AOA’s State Government Relations Committee chair member, agrees with this approach but with a word of caution.

“I’m not overwhelming my patients with our safety protocols. I am just letting them know we are taking their safety as our highest priority, and we have a few things posted. We are also wearing masks and face shields when need be. Now, if a patient asks, we will give them all the details, but I am of the mind that sometimes too many details can make a patient anxious.”

The AOA’s Guide to COVID CommunicationTelehealth has become an almost necessary part of every practice.

  1. Reach out to your patients via website, social media, email, direct mail, etc. to see how they are doing. Be sure you check in on your patients with complex eye health issues and care protocols.
  2. Use all forms of communication (website, socials, voicemails, etc.) to share that your office is open for eye health and vision care, reinforce the importance of routine care, and note the steps you’re taking to protect the health and safety of everyone involved (staff and doctors included).
  3. Remind patients of all the ways you’re accessible for their eye health needs (essential and urgent care, emergencies, telehealthonline retail, etc.).

Whatever your local guidelines call for, these steps are sure to help your continued reopening in the “new normal” go smoothly.