The return to work: supporting our optical colleagues

Optometrist director Satvinder Soomal shares his thoughts on practising optometry in a pandemic, and why good communication is more important than ever.



Good communication has always been a key part of my role as an optometrist, in hospital and the community, and as a store director but it has never been as important as it is now…


Investing my time in strong two-way communication with colleagues is critical, including those who are in store with me and those on furlough – ‘furloughed but not forgotten’, as we say. Also regular communication with other optometrists and with fellow practice owners as we develop new strategies and support each other through this pandemic.


And of course, communication with our customers. The patients getting in touch with us have such a range of concerns: their eye health, concerns of visual changes, a small repair needed or even replacement spectacles because they have broken them while gardening or DIY-ing (all those jobs that are finally getting done), contact lens queries and even audiology discussions. Patients have said they need us more than ever.


“The importance of our supporting role for the NHS…”


It has proved to me the real importance of our supporting role for the NHS: managing as many eye health concerns as we can within our competency and confidence and providing refined referrals when we need to refer. With all the training and development that has been going on such as WOPEC accreditations in MECS, Glaucoma, further College accreditations, OCT training and other CET events, and with closer relationships with ophthalmology, it feels as if the revolution of becoming the ‘GP of the eyes’ and ‘medicalising’ our profession is within touching distance.


Clear communication is so important when we are talking with the patient over the phone or on video about their history and symptoms. Explaining urgent and essential eyecare and when we can see them. And being clear and concise in the management plans we share with them and on the follow up calls a week or two later to see how they are getting on and if they need any further support.


“I always tell my team that you can hear a smile when someone speaks, even if their mouth is hidden.”


When we do need to see a patient in store for essential care, we describe to them in detail what to expect so that they feel safe. I’m very much aware that our ‘welcome to the practice’ smiles will be covered with a face mask, although of course I always tell my team that you can hear a smile when someone speaks, even if their mouth is hidden.


We explain what will happen: how they will be greeted, how the layout of the store has changed, the safety measures we have implemented, the floor vinyls, the floor tape mapping out the 2m social distancing measures, the shields on the desks. How the diagnostic areas and the consulting rooms have changed. How the whole optical support team will look different, with their full PPE.


I find that such a full explanation is met with relief. I’m very much aware that one of the memories that most patients have of visiting an optometrist is that, ‘they get so close’. To reassure them about the amount of direct contact time, we remind them about the range of diagnostic equipment that we use including digital retinal photography, the OCT and autorefractor and we explain that all our optometrists have further accreditations to ensure confidence with Volk and Goldmans contact tonometry.


We take history and symptoms over the phone to minimise the amount of time they are in store so that we only need to confirm the details with them in person and check whether there is anything else they have thought about since we spoke on the phone. I do this while they sit in the ‘chaperone chair’ at the far side of the test room and then invite them to the examination seat, having first wiped down all the equipment in front of them to give them peace of mind. When the examination is over, I step back to record findings and make sure everything is clear to them before they leave the test room.


“As well as the patients, it is so important that we reassure our colleagues that have been on furlough about the process in store…”


As well as the patients, it is so important that we reassure our colleagues that have been on furlough about the process in store: for their own mental well-being and so that they do not transmit any of their fears or concerns to the patient.


I understand that many colleagues who have been on furlough are genuinely concerned about their return to work. I’m making sure that we clearly communicate all the measures that have been put in place. As well as sharing with them the great ‘Welcome back’ pack that the group has developed for colleagues about the new customer journey, I send them pictures and we do a virtual walk through the store by video. I’ve had feedback from the parents of our younger colleagues who said they really appreciated this.


The pandemic has really brought home to me the advice from Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: the secret to effective communication is ‘Seek first to understand. Then to be understood.’



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