Treating older eyes: Ramp up your practice to greet an aging patient population

By the year 2030, the elderly population of the United States is projected to more than double, from 35 million to 72 million people.

Optometrists planning to practice for some years into the future will face many different challenges with their patient pool than in the past. Those optometrists who are well-prepared to treat the senior population will be given an excellent opportunity to grow their practices.

While addressing these challenges, health-care practitioners walk a fine line in interacting with older patients. This segment of the population often is just as diverse in attitudes and health needs as younger segments, making it risky to generalize based on age alone.

Despite this trend, patients in their 60s, 70s, and beyond still are statistically likely to face some common age-related health issues. Optometry practices should be prepared to treat this wave of patients. Preparing your office and staff to treat seniors involves re-evaluating your existing procedures, as well as the physical environment of the office. With some careful thought, optometrists can help seniors face age-related vision problems with treatments and therapies that are convenient, fit their lifestyles, and consider their individual needs.

Think like a patient

To fully examine your practice's readiness for dealing with older patients, try this mental exercise: Walk through the entire appointment process from a senior's point of view.

The process begins with setting an appointment. Do your receptionists speak clearly on the phone, and at an easy-to-understand pace? Do they ask if the patient has any special needs, such as assistance entering and exiting the building? If any special needs are noted, then extra time should be built into the appointment so that assistants and support staff can plan for this in their schedules. If the practice is located in a larger office building, using the initial phone call to give new patients specific directions to the interior office may be helpful as well.

Next, take a critical look at the physical aspects of the office visit, from the entrance of the building to the treatment rooms. From a patient comfort standpoint, as well as a liability protection standpoint, several measures can be taken to make the optometry office safer and more comfortable for older patients. As more of the population begins to use walkers, wheelchairs, and other devices to assist with mobility, it is vital to ensure that parking lots, walkways, and doorways are designed with those devices in mind. Additionally, ample lighting in parking and building entrance areas can help improve safety and patient security.

Inside the building, examine floor coverings to ensure patient safety. Confirm that a system is in place to keep any uncarpeted entryways dry in wet weather. If area rugs are used in the office, make sure that the corners and edges stay flush with the floor and won't curl up in a way that could trip patients.

Then, consider how staff interacts with patients once they arrive for their appointments. Some senior patients may prefer having a Mr. or Ms. title used instead of their first name. If possible, your intake form may include a section for the patient to state how he or she likes to be addressed. Staff also can assist with patients' physical safety and comfort by helping them into and out of seats, if necessary. In general, firm chairs with backs and armrests should be used-not stools.

Determine if you have or need to acquire equipment that enables you to work with patients who have physical handicaps. Many patients are unable to get out of their wheelchair; therefore, a chair slide in the exam lane is beneficial. Hand-held slit lamps, tonometers, and trial lenses will facilitate in making eye exams less stressful for wheelchair-bound patients.

Finally, patient take-home materials should be reviewed to make sure they are useful and relevant for a senior audience. Some materials refer patients to Web sites for more information, but seniors who don't use the Internet cannot benefit from this information. Also, as many of us have already observed, large-print brochures are very helpful for patients with vision problems.