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09 June 2021

Verbal and non-verbal communication skills are key for optometrists

We know that good communication by optometrists puts patients at ease and makes them feel in control. Bad communication can leave patients feeling dissatisfied, or result in slow or inaccurate decision-making, the wrong lens prescription, or even a failure to spot other conditions. Poor communication can also unduly extend the duration of a consultation, leaving other patients waiting outside for their appointments to start.

Previously, our understanding of how well optometrists communicate was based on surveys and interviews carried out after eye examinations. Dirk vom Lehn, Professor of Organisation and Practice, carried out a study actually to observe how optometrists interact with their patients by watching and analysing video recordings of 62 eye examinations.

The study found that optometrists’ choice of language could be crucial in helping the appointment progress smoothly. For example, neutral phrasing such as ‘have you noticed any difference in your sight?’ was more likely to encourage patients to open up than ‘have you had any problems with your sight?’ It was also important for optometrists to notice and mirror the vocabulary that patients used about their own sight, and to pick up on clues about how familiar the patient might be with the sight-test process.

Even non-verbal communication, such as maintaining eye-contact at certain key moments and managing the way instruments are brought close to the patient’s eye, was found to help keep patients relaxed and communicative.

Creating new professional development opportunities for optometrists

To put these findings into practice, with the support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the College of Optometrists, the King’s team worked with professors of optometry at Anglia Ruskin University (Cambridge) and City University (London) to create new training material for optometrists. As part of this work, they developed credit-bearing workshops, written material and an assessed online course that now contributes to the Continued Education and Training that all qualified optometrists are required to take to maintain their registration. The workshops they organised received excellent feedback.

I have learnt more about communication this afternoon than I did during my training.

Participant in the online Continued Education and Training workshop designed by King’s Business School.

We have reorganised our furniture in the consultation room to ensure we always have eye contact with patients.

Participant in the online Continued Education and Training workshop designed by King’s Business School.

Building on the success of this training for practicing optometrists, the research went on to influence the development of university teaching programmes. For example, interpersonal skills will now form part of all Clinical Optometry modules at Anglia Ruskin University. By improving optometrists’ communications skills, Professor vom Lehn’s research will help make sight tests better for patients, and more efficient for optometrists.

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Dirk vom Lehn

Professor of Organisation and Practice