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Young Ophthalmologists
Winning Patients and Keeping Them for Life

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"I'm thinking about doing some television advertising to attract new patients," the ophthalmologist told me as we sat down to eat lunch at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "I feel that I need to get the word out about my offices. I'm just not getting enough new patients and we are suffering financially."

"Tell me about your offices," I said, and I sat back to listen.

"Well, my main office has been open about five years but it wasn't doing very well, so I opened a satellite office in an underserved community about 15 miles away, but that office hasn't really taken off either. Last year, I opened another satellite office, but it's not very busy at all, so I think that doing some television advertising might help pull in some patients."

What his practice needed was not television advertising, but techniques for satisfying the patients it served already and keeping them for life.

The key to developing a successful ophthalmology practice is to understand what your patients expect from your practice and then to find ways to exceed their expectations. Surveying your patients is an easy and effective means to acquire this information.

I recommend that you conduct patient-satisfaction surveys on a regular basis. Learning directly from your patients what makes them most satisfied and most dissatisfied at your practice will help you to address the problem areas, increase patient satisfaction, and encourage future referrals.

In surveying ophthalmology patients, I have found these points to be helpful:

Make it easy for patients to complete the questionnaire
Check-boxes are quick for respondents to mark; asking them to write out their answers will cause your response rate to drop. Leaving space at the end of the survey for written comments is essential, but most of the survey should require simply making checkmarks. Also, make sure your survey is clearly written and looks professional; remember that every written communication you send to patients will affect their impression of your practice.

Make it easy for your staff to administer
It is best to distribute surveys to consecutive patients as they leave your office. That is, if you are going to survey 200 patients, have your check-out staff member give the surveys to every patient as they leave the office. After 200 patients have checked out, you should have no questionnaires left. This method is much simpler than trying to mail the survey to randomly selected patients, and it results in a higher response rate.

If you find some surveys remain after 200 patients have been through the office, you know that the check-out person is not administering the survey correctly, and you can give additional instruction. Patients who revisit the practice during the time you are distributing surveys should be given only one questionnaire, preferably at the end of their first visit.

Ask clear questions
If a question can be understood in two different ways, it will be. For example, "Please rate the technician" could confuse patients who may not know if you mean the person who took their insurance information, the person who worked them up, the person who fixed their glasses, or the surgery scheduler. It would be better to say, "Please rate the person who took you to the exam room," assuming your technicians are the only ones who do that.

Be comprehensive but brief
Ask questions about:

  1. Physicians
  2. Staff
  3. Environment
  4. Patient Education Materials

However, keep in mind that your patients are busy, and a survey with more than 15 or 20 questions may result in a lower response rate.

Make the survey anonymous
If patients think you will know who filled out the survey, they will be less likely to respond candidly. Some patients will include their names with their written comments, but don’t request that they sign the form.

Pay for postage
Many offices try to make returning the survey quick and simple, so they provide a box at check-out where the patients can put the survey once it is completed. The problem with that approach is that patients don't want to stay in your office after their exam to fill out a survey, and they also assume that as soon as they deposit the form in the box, your staff will retrieve it, thereby violating their anonymity. Either apply for a business reply mail permit from the post office and pay for the surveys to be returned to you, or provide a return envelope with a first-class stamp so that the patient doesn't have to find a stamp in order to return the questionnaire. Finally, don’t send the survey along with your bill! You should average close to a 40 percent survey return rate if you provide a postage paid envelope.

Rate doctors and offices separately
Code each questionnaire by doctor or office so that you can break out the scores accordingly. Use at least 100 surveys per doctor or office each time you survey your patients.

Survey your patients regularly
When practices start surveying their patients, they sometimes decide to hand a survey to every patient from that point on. Although this might seem like an ideal way to survey patients, in practice it doesn't work very well. Nobody in your office would have the time to analyze that many questionnaires. It's more efficient to conduct a survey two, three, or four times each year, using a specific number of surveys, so that you aren’t overwhelmed with data. This approach also allows you to implement what you learn between each round of surveys.

Do the analysis
Make sure someone in the office is assigned the job of analyzing the survey results. It is very helpful to compare results between offices and doctors and to observe how the responses change over time as you perform more and more surveys and make improvements to your practice based on what you learn. Each time you survey your patients, the ownership and management of the practice should get a written report and summary of the findings and comparisons to survey results previously administered.

Make the changes
As you analyze the survey data, you will find areas in your practice that need improvements. Make sure you take steps between each round of surveys to make the necessary changes that will help your practice perform better for your patients.

Accentuate the positive
Every patient survey will have some positive feedback from patients. Use the compliments, the high scores in specific areas, and the expressions of appreciation from your patients to encourage your staff and show them that they make a difference in the lives of your patients.

Regularly surveying your patients should be a key part of your efforts to win over your patients and keep them for life, and it should receive the time and resources that it deserves.

The above text is a short excerpt from Winning Patients and Keeping Them for Life. Surveying your patients is just one of the many techniques the author discusses in this module to exceed patients’ expectations. Creating a survey is easy with Practice Forms Master. This CD-ROM contains a library of more than 300 professionally-created forms to use as-is, or easily tailor for your office.*

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*This article was originally published in the February 2005 issue of Executive Update, an e-newsletter published monthly by the American Academy of Ophthalmic Executives.

About the author: Derek Preece is the president and chief executive officer of Enhancement Dynamics Inc., a nationwide medical practice management company headquartered in Utah. His company provides physicians with consulting assistance in nearly all facets of medical practice management, including mergers and acquisitions, financial reporting, patient satisfaction measurement, management training, physician and staff compensation, referring physician relations, human resources, accounts receivable management, and marketing. He can be reached at 801.227.0527 or