April 25, 2024

Optimizing Patient Experience in Your Ophthalmology Practice

It takes well-trained staff, a focus on the basics, and help from the right technology to make sure your patients leave your office happy.

Optimizing Patient Experience in Your Ophthalmology Practice

Any successful ophthalmology practice needs to place their patients at the center of everything they do, but this is often easier said than done. The day-to-day of running an ophthalmology practice involves managing insurance claims, overcoming scheduling challenges and, for two-door practices, may also involve managing inventory and everything else that comes with a retail storefront. That doesn’t leave much room for other priorities.

But it’s not an overstatement to say that virtually none of what you do in your practice matters if you’re not optimizing your patient experience. If patients leave your office frustrated or confused about their course of treatment, you can bet they’re not coming back, and they certainly aren’t sending their friends and family. They may even tell the world about their experience in a public review that can damage your practice for years to come.

The good news is that there are straightforward strategies for improving patient satisfaction that you can take right now.

In this guide you’ll learn:

  • The most common pain points patients experience, and how to mitigate them
  • How to enhance the professionalism of your staff, avoiding many of the most common issues that result in unhappy patients
  • How to manage poor patient feedback, and leverage positive patient experiences
  • How technology can help you provide the best possible care for your patients

What Does an Optimized Patient Experience Look Like?

The task of optimizing the patient experience is ultimately simple: make it easy to do business with your practice, and align your staff behind that central imperative.

That means patients should be treated as human beings when they’re in your care, and not just moved along an assembly line. They should feel well-informed about what’s coming next at every step of the process, and have their questions answered promptly by knowledgeable and friendly staff. It also means reducing, as much as possible, the friction created by the necessary-but-unpleasant parts of ophthalmology care.

There’s no getting around the paperwork required for benefits and insurance claims, for example. It’s also almost impossible to avoid some scheduling delays or time spent in the waiting room. But by focusing on the basics, and equipping your staff with the tools and training they need, you can ensure patients have the best possible experience in your care.

The Factors that Contribute to Low Patient Satisfaction

Small, unforeseeable mistakes may occasionally end with a negative online review, but many of the issues that contribute to poor patient experiences are predictable and chronic.

Almost everyone has likely encountered a medical practice that seems like it is barely functioning. They may have received a surprise bill for a service they thought was covered, had their appointments changed or canceled without warning, or encountered front office staff whose communication skills leave something to be desired.

Navigating an office like that can feel like stumbling through an obstacle course with a blindfold on, and it simply isn’t sustainable in an age of online reviews and Amazon. Patients are accustomed to convenience in every area of their lives, and are quick to voice their complaints when service providers fall short.

Below are some of the most common drivers behind poor customer experience. Later, we’ll discuss how to address them in a way that is sustainable and can help boost not just your online reputation, but your bottom line as well.

Long Wait Times

Nothing can drive a patient up the wall quite like long wait times. When they’ve arranged for time off from work and made the trip across town, the last thing they want is to waste 45 minutes in the waiting room.

Wait times are one factor that practices can’t entirely control. In an era of declining reimbursements, maintaining financial health means maximizing the number of patients your practice sees per hour, and that means tight schedules that are easily disrupted. Some exams will inevitably run longer than others, throwing the system into disarray.

Even with those unavoidable pressures, managing long wait times should be at the top of the list for managers looking to improve the patient experience.

Surprise Billing

Patients rightly expect that they will be given bills promptly and in a way that is transparent and easy to understand. Insurance and vision benefits plans are complex enough without care providers making things more difficult.

Patients who receive bills weeks after their appointments, or who learn that a service they thought was covered by their benefits plan will need to be paid out of pocket, are unlikely to have a positive view of their provider. The frustration they feel may be compounded by staff who don’t treat their concerns with respect and attentive assistance.

Poorly Trained Staff

Even staff who are doing their best may fall short on critical tasks that can dramatically affect patient outcomes. Something as simple as inattentive note taking or data entry errors can have significant consequences.

Soft skills are a component of staff training that is too often overlooked. A staff member who reacts badly to a tense interaction can easily exacerbate the problem. The result may be a lost referral or even a lost patient.

Inefficiencies in Technology

Any modern ophthalmology office runs on technology, from electronic scheduling systems and electronic medical records (EMR) software to a long list of ancillary platforms. While these tools can provide enormous benefits, they can also create or magnify problems when not properly managed.

Data entry errors are a prime offender in this area, but equally serious problems arise when staff don’t consult the information they have. Patients get frustrated quickly when the data that has already been collected isn’t shared with relevant personnel.

The surest way to improve your patient experience is to let staff focus on the patients they serve, not the data entry that can take up so much of their time. revBot by Revival Health is a customizable virtual assistant that can perform tasks like pre-certifying benefits and submitting vision care claims 3-5x faster than a person. Letting it handle your repetitive data entry tasks can free your staff up for higher-skill work.

Improving the Patient Experience

We’ve seen how many of the factors that negatively affect patient experience are often predictable. In some instances, they’re a consequence of outside pressures, like the need to pack as many patients as possible into an already bursting schedule.

It may not always be possible to eliminate these pressures, but below are some strategies that can help mitigate the negative outcomes of persistent challenges.

Focus on Intake

The intake process may be the most critical point in the entire patient experience. It’s the first opportunity you have to make a good impression, and also your first opportunity to lose your patient’s trust. Mistakes made in the intake process — like scheduling mix-ups or errors in insurance or benefits data entry — are also likely to compound with every subsequent step in the patient’s journey.

A well-run intake process always requires well-trained staff. But you’ll see that some of the best practices we recommend will also involve investing in the right technology. The benefits of that investment will far outweigh the costs.

Online Scheduling

Technology can facilitate every part of the patient experience, beginning with online scheduling. Easy-to-use electronic scheduling portals long ago replaced the telephone appointment process, and many patients have now come to expect this option.

The right scheduling service will integrate easily with your existing patient management (PM) and EMR systems. Patients should be able to easily see the available time slots well in advance and book directly, preferably without needing logins or passwords.

It’s also important to remember that an online system, while essential for today's practices, may not work for everyone. Older patients especially may not want to navigate an internet-based appointment portal, no matter how well-designed. With that in mind, make sure that phone calls to the office are answered promptly by knowledgeable staff who can efficiently book an appointment over the phone.

Online Paperwork Entry

Just as the days of telephone scheduling are behind us, so should be the jars of ballpoint pens and clipboards filled with tedious, often duplicative paperwork.

Make sure customers can enter insurance and medical histories into a secure online portal before their appointment. Patients should be offered the chance to get started on this paperwork the moment their appointment is confirmed.

With the right technology, this process can begin automatically. If your scheduling platform isn’t directly integrated with your EMR system, then train staff to send a link via text or email so that patients can get started right away.

If your office collects such information both online and in person, make sure that patients aren’t asked to fill out the paperwork twice. Asking for duplicate forms is a surefire way to make a patient feel frustrated with your practice.

Check Benefits Early and Thoroughly

Nothing alienates a new or existing patient quite like showing up to an appointment and finding that the service they need isn’t covered by their insurance or benefits plan. That’s why it’s critically important to review coverage as soon as possible, and certainly before the day of the appointment.

When an appointment is scheduled, either by phone or online, staff should carefully check whether the planned services are covered by the patient’s benefits. If some services are covered and some are not — a common scenario with increasingly complicated plans — patients should be notified of that fact in a transparent way. Rather than simply being told their insurance or benefits plan won't cover the procedure, staff should be prepared to provide patients with estimated out-of-pocket costs in these instances.

It’s also important to remember that a patient visit can have unpredictable outcomes. What begins as a routine eye exam could end with treatment for something more serious. With that in mind, make sure that your staff reviews the vision benefits plan and relevant medical insurance for each patient ahead of every appointment.

Communicate Wait Times

A patient who has to wait 30 minutes, or even an hour, past their appointment time is a patient who may never return to your practice. Even if you’ve optimized every other aspect of your patient experience, long waits that are handled poorly can jeopardize your hard work in other areas.

Anyone who has run an ophthalmology practice knows, however, that delays are sometimes unavoidable. As with many other aspects of patient care, the key to managing wait times is to offer patients transparent and timely information. Make sure staff don’t just deposit a patient in an exam room and leave them to wonder when they’ll be seen. If it looks like the doctor will be delayed, simply notifying the patient can go a long way toward diffusing annoyance.

Patient Handoffs

Every patient visit will involve at least a couple of transitions, such as from the reception area to an exam room, or an exam room to the optical shop. Each of these junctures is an opportunity for staff and doctor communication, especially of information not contained in a medical record.

Perhaps an unpleasant billing issue came up at the reception desk, or maybe the patient mentioned a last minute symptom to the staff member who checked them in. Maybe the ophthalmologist learned some new information during an exam that would be helpful for the optician to know.

When possible, make time for a brief patient handoff between each transition point, even if it’s only a 30-second exchange. This will better equip the team to anticipate each patient’s needs, and can also make a powerful impression on a patient when it becomes clear that relevant information is being shared proactively. If an in-person meeting isn’t possible, consider a communication platform like Teams or Slack that can get real-time messages to the right personnel.

Patient handoffs are important for another reason: these transition periods are one of the few times where you can reduce wait times. Try to keep transitions under 5 minutes. (With the exception of checkout, where patients generally prefer to leave as soon as possible.)

Provide Prompt and Easy-to-Understand Billing

Whenever possible, send patients their bill on the day of the appointment. If staff has diligently verified insurance and benefits information, there should be no surprises.

If there are unexpected charges, or if unplanned services delivered during the visit turn out not to be covered by the patient’s benefits plan, have staff call with a timely warning. No one likes receiving a big unexpected bill, but a call can help reduce frustration.

Ask for Patient Feedback

Asking for feedback accomplishes two important goals: it signals to patients that you care about your performance, and also provides actionable insights that can help you improve.

Services like Luma or Promptly can provide an easy way to collect patient feedback. One thing to remember is not to make the process a burden; that means no long or overly-detailed forms. A text message that asks for a simple “smile” or “frown” emoji is a great way to get an indication of how you’re doing.

Many patients will be more than glad to provide feedback themselves in Google or Yelp reviews, and those reviews may not always be positive. Your senior staff or management should respond to all negative reviews in a professional, public way. Acknowledge when you’ve made a mistake, and in all cases, learn from the feedback.

Patient Experience Depends on Staff Performance

Virtually all of the best practices listed above have one thing in common: their success or failure largely depends on your team and their training. We discussed the importance of technology, and it can be incredibly helpful, but even the best tech won’t make up for staff mistakes.

Staff training should take into account both soft skills, like how to effectively manage an irate patient, and hard skills, like note taking and data entry. Getting your staff properly trained can take effort, but it will pay dividends for your patient experience.

Train With Mentors

The ongoing staffing shortages in ophthalmology have made it harder than ever to find qualified personnel, which means that on-the-job training is essential to building a great team.

For many practices, however, training may seem like a luxury they can ill-afford. Staff are already overworked, and the prospect of adding more responsibilities can seem impossible. The result is a haphazard approach where new staff members are “trained” by whoever else happens to be on the schedule that day. That can lead to conflicting information or bad habits replicating themselves.

The most effective way to counteract that risk is with a structured, well-organized mentoring system. New staff members should be matched with an experienced colleague who can provide clear guidance. They should also be offered clear benchmarks and timetables that they can use to measure progress. It may be appropriate to offer an incentive to the employee who serves as mentor, so she or he feels like their extra effort is valued.

Address Hard Skills First

Patient intake, note taking and running the basic technology of the practice should be something every staff member can handle as soon as possible. These are the basic tasks that keep an office running, and all of your team members should be able to take on those tasks when needed.

Don’t Ignore Soft Skills

Soft skills, like knowing how  to offer a warm greeting, or how to calm an angry patient in your waiting room, are critical for all staff members to possess.

Provide coaching on conflict resolution, and set clear expectations for how patients should be treated when in your care. Emphasize that a simple smile can go a long way. Defensiveness, too, can make a big impression — of the wrong kind.

The bad news is that these soft skills can be challenging to teach to staff members who don’t already possess them. The good news is that this kind of “customer service” attitude will come naturally to many employees. The task falls to managers to make sure staff members are placed in the positions for which they are best suited.

Benchmarks and KPIs for Measuring Patient Experience

The experience patients have in your office is ultimately subjective. It can’t be quantified as easily as your monthly revenue, for example, and that can make it a challenging thing to track and improve.

But there are ways to leverage data to help you gauge how well you’re treating the people in your care and where you could perhaps do better. We’ll review a few potential approaches to that below.

Ratings and Reviews

Online patient reviews contain a wealth of information about how your business is performing. We discussed best practices for handling negative reviews, but feedback of any kind is valuable and should be compiled as it appears. There will undoubtedly be actionable information for staff and management to digest.

Consider incentivizing reviews by offering patients discounts on goods in the optical shop or other similar enticements. You can also consider rewarding staff for positive reviews with gift cards or other awards.

To obtain quantitative data, compiling feedback into a spreadsheet with a simple coding system — positive reviews vs. negative ones —  can produce a helpful trendline.

Benefit Claims Data

Your claims records offer a ready-made source of data for how well your office is running. Tracking how many of your claims have aged out, or what percentage were rejected or denied, is a good practice in any case, but it also has big implications for the patient experience. Every claim that ages out or is denied by a benefits plan likely results in a frustrated patient.

Mission and Values Check

It’s easy for any busy practice to lose sight of its mission and values. Taking the time to thoughtfully apply your mission statement to new decisions and initiatives can keep you grounded and heading in the right direction.

Many practices likely have excellent patient care at the center of their missions, and that’s a positive goal to pursue. But consider that serving patients also means supporting staff with the right training and tools to succeed.

Final Thoughts

Running a successful ophthalmology practice means juggling a host of priorities. You need to maximize the patients you see per hour, and the revenue they produce, while also staying competitive in the marketplace.

Many of these requirements for a successful business may be in tension with providing an excellent patient experience. But with a well-trained and well-informed team on your side, you can ensure that you don’t sacrifice patient care for a thriving business, and, ultimately, you may find that accomplishing the first goal leads directly to the second.

Next generation technologies like revBot from Revival Health can help automate rote tasks and keep your office running smoothly. revBot can also free your staff to spend time where it counts — on patients, not paperwork.

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