When the sheer magnitude of COVID-19 started to become evident, all of us in the practice knew we had to prepare early. We had a lot of vulnerable patients who had attended the practice for years and, as staff members, we each had vulnerably family members of our own to think about. So, two or three days before we were told to do so officially, we locked down and notified our patients of the changes we were putting in place.
Since that day five months or so ago, we have been on the biggest rollercoaster of emotions. There have been low points of sheer panic and worry, especially at the start – being a clinician and practice owner, it was tough not getting to see much new business. But once our initial panic began to settle, this was gradually replaced by highlights and moments of relief as we started to re-establish ourselves and returned to serving our patients. There is a lot to be positive about – and I feel very lucky.
Support on standby
In the first few weeks of lockdown, it was just me. My top priority was for our patients to know they could contact us whenever they needed, for whatever they needed, so I set up an emergency e-mail, mobile line and WhatsApp support line on day one. My emergency mobile has been on me 24/7 ever since!
While that sounds rough – and of course, at times it is demanding – I feel the pandemic has given our practice an invaluable opportunity to better connect with our patients. From the beginning, I found that clear, compassionate and regular communication was vital. Being there and being able to respond at the touch of a button was reassuring to patients. We had to adapt our modes of communication, finding the right balance between old and new. According to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – it is not the strongest that survives, but the one that is able to adapt. I know quoting that may sound corny but I like it – it sums up our experience as a tiny practice!
Keeping the traditional lines open
Prior to the outbreak, I felt that we were quite old-fashioned as a practice in terms of our patient communication. But the pandemic has emphasised that while we need to innovate, we shouldn’t underestimate the value of having a personal phone conversation. From simply having a chat with some of our patients who felt lonely, to discussing glasses being broken, right through to addressing serious eye health issues, maintaining human interaction and providing real-time reassurance over the phone has been key throughout this period.
Case in point: at the beginning of the lockdown we were surprised not to have as many emergency calls coming in as one would expect, but as time went on and as we engaged more with our patients, we discovered some hidden issues. Some patients had simply been too scared to leave their homes in March to report any vision problems, even blurred vision or loss of sight. Reaching out to them personally allowed them to open up more than I think an e-mail alert would have achieved.
Communicating openly also allowed us to talk to patients about their changing needs in this time. Changing to new glasses or switching to contact lenses, for example, has become a recurring theme amongst most of our patients who are working from home and spending more time in front of digital screens, or to better accommodate those wearing PPE masks for hours on end.
Dialling up digital
On the other hand, digital communications has also been critical – and COVID-19 meant we needed to step up our game. With patients of all ages turning to the internet, we decided to refresh our digital communications channels, adding clear sign-posting to our website, boosting use of e-mails and engaging on social media.
We were very quick to communicate with patients about safe and suitable visual solutions across our social channels – Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. With tips from industry webinars such as Johnson & Johnson’s session with Professor Phil Morgan, we ensured that our patients knew that contact lenses were safe for continued use. Because of this, I am glad to say that we were able to retain all of our contact lens patients.
My comfort with using social media has only grown since – and the impact might surprise you. Recently I published a post with advice for preventing foggy glasses while wearing facemasks, and next thing I knew I was speaking on a local radio station alongside someone in the NHS.
There are loads of templates and resources available and adding your own touch to content is easy even when you’re short for time. I think all practices should make the most of the unlimited reach of social media to engage with their patients and boost the public profile of their practice.
Turning to the wider industry
At the end of the day, none of us can tackle crises like this alone. Collaboration with industry partners was and always will be key.
Over the past few months I’ve felt so lucky to have support from industry and partners. From the forms provided by the College of Optometrists to support phone consultations, to educational digital materials passed on from suppliers for us to share with patients at the click of a button – the industry came together to support each other.
From a practical perspective, webinars by Johnson & Johnson on patient-friendly language were extremely useful. Others such as sessions with my Sight Care Premium Group not only helped with operational needs, but helped me look after my own mental health as well. I’ve realised just how important it is for us all as practitioners to be able to touch base with each other in a safe environment.
Changing for the long term
There are some aspects of our practice which, pandemic or no pandemic, are unlikely to change. We as a practice have operated by appointment policy for a number of years – to ensure that we have the right practitioners for the right patient. This lockdown experience has been a further validation that this is the best approach for our practice.
However, although I love seeing my patients in practice, there’s no doubt that remote consultations by phone have been an amazingly convenient alternative during lockdown, along with new programmes that have been rolled out with home deliveries of contact lenses, glasses, solutions and eye drops. We’ve even been organising Zoom calls to support patients with selecting and trying on new glasses – all remotely – which was an enjoyable experience for me personally, as I’m normally locked in our consulting room! With patients’ time being more precious than ever in an ‘always-on’ digital world, I think we should continue with these remote but personalised eyecare services going forward.
Similarly, we will be continuing to leverage our social media channels to engage more with patients. We have seen an increase in online engagement with followers since the lockdown, and this has actually led to new business. Our shop doors may have been closed for a long time, but we have been lucky to still gain new patients and customers from across the country.
While there’s more work to be done – we’ll keep adapting our communication channels as our patients’ needs evolve – I’m extremely proud of the work eye care practitioners have been doing across the industry in this challenging time. The COVID-19 pandemic remains a global tragedy, but it has brought us closer to our patients and stronger together as an industry.
Faye McDearmid is an optometrist and Professional Affairs Consultant for Johnson & Johnson Vision.
A version of this article was published by Optometry Today, the journal of the Association of Optometrists.