Can I Have Your Number? The Unexpected Daily Challenges of A Young Female OD

10:45 PM

If it's not obvious by the fact my "down-time" is spent here, blogging about my profession, I really love being an optometrist.  I would make that decision again even if I time-traveled back to my undergrad days (and please, don't let that recurring nightmare of facing tests and papers all over again ever become reality). But there are plenty of times in this career where I've had experiences I'd rather forget.  Uncomfortable encounters with male and female patients, angry belligerence, threats, casual and blatant sexism.  All in a day's work when your profession is part of the customer service industry known as healthcare.

The face I make when I think about this issue - captured perfectly by artist Karen Goins
Recently I was asked to reflect upon some of the difficult situations I've been placed in as a young female optometrist by fellow OD from across the globe in Australia, Jane of BrightEyed Blog. She interviewed both me and my friend Dr. Jaclyn Garlich of 20/20 Glance fame about some uncomfortable scenarios we've been faced with, and how we best recommend other new grads tackle the challenge if they are ever put in the same situation.  

When she asked me about dealing with patients that ask for my number or ask to meet up for food or drinks, several scenarios came to mind.  There’s no perfect way to handle when a patient asks for your number or to meet later out of the office, but here’s my go to:

“Thank you, are you inviting my (husband/boyfriend) too?” and then laugh good-naturedly and reassuringly that it’s not that awkward that just happened, even though it is.
Ok maybe you don’t have a boyfriend or husband, but I think this answer is less awkward than other possible answers, and your patient doesn’t need to know that you are single.  I’ve tried out “It’s company policy we can’t date patients” but that’s really strange to say, and makes the patient think maybe you’d be interested if you could get around company policy. You don’t want to encourage them in any way.
Sometimes you have to use more than just humor though.  I can think of one situation where I had to tell a patient they were being inappropriate and just let things get awkward. I was doing direct ophthalmoscopy (by the way this was the last time I did that on an adult now that I think about it!) and of course you have to get really close to your patient to see anything. The patient started laughing, so when I was done I asked what was funny. My mistake!! He replied, “I was just thinking when you were so close, what would you do if I just turned around and kissed you.”
I think my eyebrows shot into my hairline. I don’t really remember thinking but I just said, “Well I’m glad you didn’t. I would have probably hit you with this piece of equipment and it’s pretty heavy.”
We finished the exam pretty quickly from there. I don’t encourage threatening to hit your patients with ophthalmic devices, but it did straighten him up pretty fast.

Direct Ophthalmoscope, ocular assessment tool and an OD's Maglite in case of emergency. 
My best advice for you when you encounter patients that make you feel uncomfortable is to try to deflect first with humor when possible if the situation is not an overt threat, then with expediency if anything persists. If a line is crossed, the exam needs to be over.  Leave the room, and ask the patient to leave. Don't let a scenario go on too long because the risk increases if the person feels they are being reciprocated.  You should never be in the office by yourself for safety reasons, and because you are there with others so close by, know that you have staff members and maybe even other doctors there with you that will support you if a patient needs to be asked to leave.
You make think this story is a rare event, but many of you have experienced something similar in practice already, maybe even during clinic hours at your optometry school. I've heard everything from one-off comments about my size, to emails appearing in my work account asking to meet for dinner or drinks, to that one time I was told an enlightening story about why my patient was so upset when I came in the room because he loved when his doctor wore a white coat so he could imagine them with nothing on underneath (yikes- I was glad I wasn't wearing one that day!). I realize that my experiences are so common, and honestly so much less threatening than many of my industry friend's horror tales, that it's a shame we don't get taught explicitly how to deal with this type of sexual harassment as part of our medical schooling.  In 2017, these experiences are still normal.  Patients hitting on you or inappropriately making advances on you is going to happen! It’s happened to every female optometrist I know, and quite a few of the men. When it happens, you’re going to feel gross and uncomfortable, but it is not your fault. Be prepared and plan ahead with strategies for how you will deal with this situation, and that way you'll know immediately what to do when it happens to you!
Want to read more awkward new grad scenarios and real world advice? Check out all the topics Jane, Jackie, and I discussed about dealing with the daily challenges of being a young female OD in her blog posts here and here.

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  1. Excellent post Dr. L. I recall a situation where a lovely elderly Guyanese woman invited me and my husband over for dinner sometime since she felt like she knew my relatives from back in Guyana. I was actually considering it but decided to tell her that we are not allowed to give out our phone numbers. I hope we meet again at a family event though, she sounded like she could make some real good traditional Guyanese food! Haha.