Eyecare Biz Owners Sing the Praises of Their Techs
THE CIRCULATORY SYSTEM of the office.” “The heartbeat of the practice.” “The best thing that has ever happened to our office.” These are just a few examples of the praise INVISION readers showered on their optometric technicians when we reached out to them on the topic. Face it: you may have a degree in optometry or business administration, but without your techs, your office would be a logjam of forgotten dilating patients. Part Radar O’Reilly, part Florence Nightingale, a good tech anticipates the doc’s needs, ensures patients are happy and moving through the exam lane, keeps the CL shelves stocked, doesn’t bat an eye at autorefraction and EMR tasks — and, it turns out, is pretty handy in a pandemic.
DOC’S RIGHT ARM
Perhaps the task most associated with the tech is pre-testing patients. A common theme among the owners and managers INVISION spoke to was the degree to which this role impacts a practice’s overall performance. “I find it a chore to run my own Optos and I don’t know how to use the virtual reality visual fields yet, so I don’t even bother with that when I don’t have the help,” says Marc Ullman, OD, at Academy Vision in Pinehurst, NJ. “And I take triple the amount of time to get an OCT scan compared to my tech. So yes my tech is invaluable.” Ullman says an experienced technician can move a practice to the next level; his tech, Dena Michalkowski, seemed well aware of this when she applied.
“During her interview she said she would help double the amount of patients I see in a day.” Not only did this turn out to be true, but she actually inspired him to build the extra lanes he’d always wanted. Travis LeFevre, co-owner at Krystal Vision in Logan, UT, doesn’t mince words: “A good tech makes or breaks an exam,” he says.
There are of course a host of other tech tasks — greeting patients, starting charts, contact lens follow-ups, maintaining inventory for CL trials, sample drops and solutions, and pretty any other kind of sellable. As Jenna Gilbertson, office manager at McCulley Optix Gallery in Fargo, ND, puts it, “If it happens in the ‘back half’ of the office, it is their area!”
Other tasks are simply delegated to talented techs because they’re naturally good time managers and hyper-competent task jugglers. Gilbertson recently assigned her tech extraordinaire (and home-schooling single mom, not to mention certified optician), Sandra Sherman, with putting together a policy and procedure manual for staff, including the additional techs she plans to hire. “We want to have a natural, easy-to-follow script to say to patients, and information, tips and tricks for each of our instruments and everything our techs do,” she says.
Flexibility is a hallmark of a good tech, and it’s nowhere truer than at Astorino & Associates Eye Center in Newport Beach, CA, which is primarily an ophthalmology office. All techs there recently had to learn EMR, according to resident optician David Greening, and cataract technicians will perform measurements to prep patients for cataract surgery. He says they’re all doing a great job with the extra duties and shouts out lead technician Diane Nava “for doing a fantastic job.”
A less common but vital tech duty was related to us by Diana Canto-Sims, owner of Buena Vista Optical in Chicago, IL, which has a heavily Spanish-speaking clientele. Techs there will step in to serve as translators when the doctor does not speak the language.
While there are obvious benefits to hiring a tech who has experience in, say, seeing scores of patients a day for OCTs and comes with special testing skills, some owners are willing to take on candidates with potential to learn on the job and stress “soft” skills. Tiffany Firer, optical manager at Lifetime Eyecare in Jenison, MI, said the practice seeks out “techs who are personable, warm, dependable and have the ability to acquire and apply new knowledge and skills (shout out to Megan!).” Having said that, while Lifetime does offer training on the job as it acquires new technologies, most hires do tend to have at least some experience, and the practice boasts a crew of certified paraoptometric technicians. (The American Optometric Association offers four levels of certification.) But the need for those special human qualities is generally agreed upon. Says Gilbertson: “[Techs] need to be a fit culture-wise with our office. That is key. We can teach them most things, but they need to be willing to learn, flexible, detail-oriented and curious.”
In fact, temperament came up time and again when we asked biz owners what qualities they look for in a tech. Again, this can trump pre-existing expertise. Says William Chancellor at Eye Can See in Hampton, GA, “A tech is a learned position, and is vital to any practice… a steady hand fits best for this role.”
One phenomenon anyone working in a medical field encounters sooner or later is the patient who feels intimidated in the presence of the doctor or an exam situation. Very often it’s the tech that gets the patient over this psychological hurdle. According to Deb Jaeger at Eye Center of the Dakotas in Bismarck, ND, optometric technicians “spend more time with our patients than the rest of us combined. They get to know the personal side of each patient and guide them through their exam experience. Some patients may be here for the first time… Some patients are nervous about their exam… Our technicians welcome every patient with a smile and an introduction, explaining each step of the process from pretesting to the optical.”
Sherry Morgan, practice concierge at Logan Eye Care in Lake Mary, FL, concurs: “Our patients love our techs, and they help patients feel comfortable and safe.” Keeping feathers unruffled among both patients and doctors is something good techs are known for. Danielle Doniver, a manager at Heritage Optical in Detroit, MI, recalls one such peacekeeper. “Our former tech was awesome. She could handle the most difficult child or adult with such ease. She was not rattled by anything the customers or the doctors would do or say.”
At many practices, much of the patient education process — especially in the crucial early stage — is in the hands of the tech. At Spring Hill Eyecare in Spring Hill, TN, there is a dedicated phone line for techs to take patient questions and pass on the information they need, according to office manager Melanie Jenkins. For this reason, some practices invest considerable resources in their techs. According to Sarah Montes at Hockemeyer Family Eye Care in New Haven, IN, “About two years ago, we decided to invest in our technicians, and provide them with study materials for certification, pay for them to test, and even give them a monetary hourly compensation for passing the exam.”
COVID has thrown the tech’s role into sharp relief, simultaneously depriving many businesses of their support staff for financial, legal or health reasons while creating more tasks for them to do. In particular, the newfound industry-wide obsession with cleanliness, both in and outside the exam room, has added to the tech’s list of chores. Says Greening, “COVID really woke us up in the practice in terms of hygiene. We were always very clean before, but now we clean almost excessively. Techs are responsible for wiping down rooms after a patient has been in there. We see around 40 patients a day, so that’s a lot of cleaning.” The pandemic has also meant more phone time for a lot of staff, taking down demographic information and making appointments; another new task cited by multiple office managers is parking lot duty. Says Firer: “Along with optical [duties] they have to manage finding their patients in the parking lot to bring them inside.” Adds Pam Peters, practice manager at Midwest Eye in Downers Grove, IL, “The new COVID protocol has patients checking in from their cars and our techs make every effort not to leave them out in the cold!”
When it comes to the tech’s overall contribution, Peters offers a nice summation: “They keep us on time, they are continually learning, they are patient liaisons, they are traffic control, and they contribute to the excellent patient experience we strive for at our practice.” But maybe Rick Rickgauer, optician at Vision Associates in Girard, PA, paid techs the truest tribute of all: “When she calls in sick,” he says, “I want to shoot myself.”