Well-developed soft skills can be the differentiating factor between a patient returning to your care for decades to come versus never showing their face again.
Soft skills are intangible proficiencies and traits relating to interpersonal interactions, emotional intelligence, and social skills.1 This is in contrast to hard skills, which are the technical skills and knowledge learned in the lecture theatre or tute room. In optometry, hard skills include how to refract accurately, assess for corneal guttae, or knowing the difference between a conjunctival melanoma and a naevus. While hard skills are undoubtedly essential in optometry, the modern optometry practice and its patients expect much more from its clinicians. Well-developed soft skills can be the differentiating factor between a patient returning to your care for decades to come versus sending in a complaint and never showing their face again.
The Value of Soft Skills
Soft skills play an important role in optometry and the broader healthcare industry. Your profession is inherently people-facing; interacting with other humans regularly is an unchangeable part of your job. Your soft skills enable you to successfully navigate the wide range of personalities and emotional states that you can expect to encounter on any given day – the anxious patient, the demanding parent, the foreign-speaking patient who has arrived without a translator, and even your dispenser who’s having a particularly stressful day.
Honing your soft skills also positions you to improve the patient flow in your clinic through efficient time management and improve your workplace for everyone through your attention to detail. The hard skill of gonioscopy is useful for assessing narrow anterior angles. Still, it’s the soft skill of critical thinking that helps you to realise that arranging your jobs for collection in alphabetical order in one drawer is a better idea than leaving them all over the bench of the lab.
While soft skills are typically defined as natural personality skills, there is still a chance to develop them further. Hard skills are relatively easy to learn and assess through classes, tutorials, lectures, and CPD events. On the other hand, soft skills are honed through experience (and often, trial and error). There are also coaching and mentoring programs available to help you work on refining your soft skills.
When it comes to sifting through many applicants for an optometrist position, more and more practice owners and managers understand that soft skills are the differentiating factor. You may have a Masters of Advanced Clinical Optometry, but if you come across as cold and uncaring in the interview and miss all the social cues from your interviewer, your chances of getting hired are probably not high.
Top Soft Skills for Optometrists
Pretty much any and all of the soft skills are desirable. You can’t go wrong by having high emotional intelligence, astute social skills, or well-developed interpersonal communication abilities in any setting. However, in optometry and healthcare, there are 5 soft skills that are especially crucial.
As an optometrist, this is what you’re doing all day, every day! Not only are you communicating with your patients, but you’re also communicating with your dispensers, other support staff, lens reps, and other healthcare professionals. Communicating well is one of the most important soft skills in healthcare.2,3
In the consulting room, excellent communication looks like not only talking but also listening attentively. Listening attentively involves eye contact (though not in a weird, overly-intense way) and non-verbal cues such as nodding, and repeating back important points from what the patient has said to you to demonstrate that you’ve heard and understood them. When it’s your turn to talk, clear communication avoids ambiguous questions or statements, and tailors your language to the person in front of you. It’s also important to give your patient all the details and information to understand your findings and treatment recommendations.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and to understand and share another person’s feelings.3 An empathetic relationship with your patients has been shown to improve health outcomes and therapeutic results, as patients are more likely to comply with your recommendations if they feel you’ve understood them correctly.3
As a bonus, having the soft skill of empathy has benefits for you, the optometrist, as well. Research has shown that clinicians who can build empathetic relationships with their patients are less likely to experience stress and burnout and are less prone to depression.3
3. Attention to detail
Though having an eye for detail is beneficial in all professions, it can be seen as particularly important for optometrists and other clinicians, given the nature of your work. Noticing that you have one too many zeros in the concentration of your script for atropine can be the difference between a happy patient undergoing myopia management or one who is struggling with photophobia and near vision difficulties.
While professionalism is often seen as a cold and distant demeanour, it’s an important balance to the natural tendency some have to want to be friends with their patients. Building a connection with your patient is important, as is coming across as warm and approachable. However, professionalism enables you to set appropriate boundaries. For example, a tearful patient in your chair may cause the sympathetic side in you to offer a hug and to meet them for lunch later; professionalism cautions you that such intimate physical contact is inappropriate, as are personal meetings outside of the consulting room.
Professional boundaries can often be vague and debatable. Optometry Australia has outlined several recommendations to protect both optometrist and patient, including:4
- Never using your professional position to pursue a sexual or otherwise inappropriate relationship with someone under your care
- Avoiding expressing your personal beliefs to a patient that exploits their vulnerability or are likely to cause distress
- Not encouraging gifts from patients for your benefit nor accepting gifts other than small tokens of minimal value
- Not becoming financially involved with a patient
- Not pressuring patients for donations to other people or organisations
5. Critical thinking
The soft skill of critical thinking enables the optometrist to make a balanced, informed, well-considered response to a problem. In other words, it’s an objective evaluation of an issue to form a conclusion. In the spirit of being objective, you need to be aware of your own biases and assumptions, while at the same time appreciating that these may be inaccurate or not applicable to the patient in front of you. In optometry, there are opportunities to exercise your critical thinking skills all the time, often termed “clinical reasoning”. Critical thinking in a clinical optometry setting can be developed by pausing to ask yourself:5
- Why am I deciding to do that test/make that recommendation?
- What alternatives have I considered?
- Why did I reject those alternatives?
- How can I justify my decision?
Soft skills are an essential part of being a professional and a generally successful member of society. In optometry and healthcare, soft skills such as communication and critical thinking become even more crucial. While some skills may not come naturally to you, developing these with experience and mentoring is possible.
- Healthcare Management. What are Some Important “Soft Skills” to Develop as a Healthcare Worker? https://www.healthcare-management-degree.net/. 2021. Available at: https://www.healthcare-management-degree.net/faq/what-are-some-important-soft-skills-to-develop-as-a-healthcare-worker/. (Accessed February 2023).
- Elsevier Education. The Importance of “Soft” Skills in Nursing and Healthcare Professions. https://evolve.elsevier.com/. 2020. Available at: https://evolve.elsevier.com/education/expertise/faculty-development/the-importance-of-soft-skills-in-healthcare-professions/. (Accessed February 2023).
- Moudatsou M, Stavropoulou A, Philalithis A, Koukouli S. The Role of Empathy in Health and Social Care Professionals. Healthcare (Basel). 2020;8(1):26.
- Optometry Australia. Crossing the Line. https://www.optometry.org.au/. 2017. Available at: https://www.optometry.org.au/workplace/crossing-the-line/. (Accessed February 2023).
- Mivision. Clinical Reasoning: What’s it All About? https://mivision.com.au/. 2019. Available at: https://mivision.com.au/2019/09/clinical-reasoning-whats-it-all-about/. (Accessed February 2023).
Deakin University. Soft skills and hard skills: What’s the difference? https://credentials.deakin.edu.au/. 2019. Available at: https://credentials.deakin.edu.au/soft-skills-and-hard-skills-whats-the-difference/. (Accessed February 2023).