February 2024 - Building confidence in communicating with patients

Put simply, communication is the exchanging of information and the expression of feeling that can result in understanding.

Optical professionals are expected to be able to communicate effectively with patients and adapt their approach and style according to the situation and individual needs, as reflected in the communication requirements of the GOC outcomes. In line with these outcomes, The College of Optometrists' Guidance for Professional Practice details the value of communication, partners and teamwork for optometrist professionals.

“The patient will never care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

For some, confident communication skills come naturally, but not everyone is born a good communicator. The following approaches can enhance the confidence of optometry and ophthalmic dispensing learners when communicating with their patients. 

  • Encourage students to keep it simple

Nick Walsh FBDO, ABDO head of corporate development highlights the need for keeping effective patient communication simple and concise. Consultations should have a beginning, middle and end. It can be tempting to over explain, but learners should be encouraged to use short words when talking to their patients about hard things, and repeat key points where necessary, but without patronising. 

  • Empathy and compassion 

Empathy is a major component of a satisfactory doctor-patient relationship.1 Compassionate practice comprises of understanding, empathy and a desire to help. As discussed in January's topic of the month, whilst compassionate practice is essential for leaner wellbeing, prioritising the patient through compassionate practice can aid successful communication. Optometrist, Sarah Morgan suggests, it is vital to “find out at the beginning who is in your chair.” Sarah and Gordon Ilett share their tips for creating a seamless patient experience through enhanced communication. Related to this is active listening. Listening to patients and engaging them in consultations with the use of questions will create a flowing dialogue and this can further aid confidence in communication. 

  • Make effective use of patient feedback and reflection 

Seeking patient feedback can help learners identify areas for improvement, which can then enhance performance. Katrina L Schmid et al found that patient feedback allowed for a unique learning opportunity. 

The GOC standards echo the need for optometrists to engage in critical reflection (through patient feedback) as part of their lifelong learning. 

  • Role modelling, practical experiences and encouraging learners to role play 

Leading by example is a way to model behaviour you would like to see in learners. Giving students the opportunity to shadow and observe experienced optometrists and ophthalmic dispensers during consultations will help them identify different aspects of communication and how specific manners, nuances, tone and body language can be used to build rapport. Furthermore, practical experience will enable learners to encounter a range of situations and help them to adapt accordingly. Virtual clinical scenarios can also be a way for learners to develop communication skills in a safe environment. Optician Online also credits videos and role-play as effective strategies to develop communication skills.

  • Explore online courses

Encourage learners to enrol on online courses to help develop confidence in their communication skills. The College of Optometrists offer a range of CPD courses with follow-up podcasts/WebinarXtra to answer members’ questions.

Course: Eye examinations – improve your skills (college-optometrists.org)

Course: Effective history taking: how to guide the conversation (college-optometrists.org)

  • Develop confidence

Those who are confident in their ability are more likely to display positive communication. Learners may want to consider undertaking a higher qualification that will equip them for new challenges and boost both confidence and skills. Furthermore, adopting resilience as discussed in December's Topic of the month feature will aid confidence and have a positive impact on self belief and thus communication. 

Applying some of these strategies can positively impact patient relationships as they are more likely to follow treatment plans if they feel at ease and understand what is being conveyed, and this in turn results in more successful clinical outcomes. The benefits of strong communication skills has a far reaching effect, not only with patients, but with colleagues, peers and the wider sector. 

Have your say

We welcome contributions to Topic of the month and would love to hear your views. Please email spokehub@college-optometrists.org with suggested themes you would like covered.

Bibliography and references 

16 ways to improve your communication skills with patients - BHF

Bakić-Mirić, Nataša M and Nikola M. Bakić. "Successful doctor-patient communication and rapport building as the key skills of medical practice." Facta Univers 15.2 (2008)

Dr Tina Cartwright, a chartered health psychologist at the University of Westminster, worked with Radical Departures, a company specialising in digital medical and health-care communications provided guidance on how to tailor communication specifically for older people

The College of Optometrists have drawn on the results of their research studies to identify some key communication issues in eye care consultations. 

Ian Davies offers and overview of why good communication has such a significant impact on successful practice

Sue Deal looks at how communication skills can be used to maximise successful patient encounters.

In this piece, Carmine Gallow outlines four communication strategies to help motivate and inspire How Great Leaders Communicate

Ekua Hagan shares her tips on How to Become a Confident and Concise Communicator

Kron at al assess advanced communication skills among second-year medical students exposed either to a computer simulation or to a multimedia computer-based learning module.

Bee Teng Lim et al look at a teaching innovation to enhance empathetic communication skills in medical students in New Zealand. “Being-in-role”: A teaching innovation to enhance empathic communication skills in medical students (tandfonline.com)

Bao N Nguyen et al look at improving optometry student interpersonal skills through online patient, clinician and student evaluation and feedback. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08164622.2023.2195049

Pant and Khan review Effective communication cum counselling during primary eye care

Perron et al Teaching communication skills: beyond wishful thinking

Confidence in Communication: Tips for Effective and Assertive Interactions