This blog was prompted by a couple of incidents that happened to myself and a friend in the last week. 

As we work with the public, sometimes seeing 20 or more people a day, there is a chance that you are going to come across someone who makes you uneasy.  I’m speaking as a woman because, well, I am a woman but I’m sure there are times where male optoms are made to feel uncomfortable by their patients as well.  This could be because of the patient’s manner or actions, or maybe they say something a bit off colour and it changes the atmosphere in the test room.

We are alone with patients and, while I’ve said a lot about trying to make the patients feel at ease by being aware of our communication and body language, I’ve not said much about the other side.  I have a few of stories about inappropriate behaviour that I’ll share today but there several others I have heard from female optoms that confirm that these incidents are common enough that most of us will experience it.

When I was in my final year of uni, we had a course that covered a bit of everything. It was a mishmash of ocular pathology, communication and outside topics like smoking and mental health.  While I remember most of the pathology and pathways information, the rest is pretty much a blur – except for one lecture where a female optom told us about a very threatening situation that she found herself in.  She was in the test room, alone in the practice, when her patient started touching himself inappropriately.  Now, you’d think that there would be a shocked silence at this but no, someone at the back laughed.  I was imagining myself in that situation, while I was listening, thinking about how threatening that must have been and wondering how I would cope in that scenario.  It’s all very well to say, “I would call for help or call the police or firmly ask him to leave” but that doesn’t take into consideration the fact that the man may not wait patiently for help to arrive and he may not leave.  The person laughing at the back was a guy and I like to think it was that laugh people give when they are shocked – you know, when your mouth makes the wrong sound at the wrong time – but it could be that this student didn’t understand how awful that situation really was.  It would be awkward for a man but for the petite female optom, alone in her room, it would’ve screamed danger.  She was okay, by the way, but that incident obviously had an effect on her.

Now, I’m 33 and married and built like a tank.  I really didn’t think that I would have to deal with inappropriate behaviour.  Yes, I’ve had a few comments that made me feel a little uneasy (casual racism and sexism still seem to be a thing, unfortunately) but nothing that stopped me from completing a test.  I’ve had some really weird comments (“Are you a Christian? You look like a Christian”, “You know, my wife and I no longer sleep together” and, my personal favourite, “You’re a big girl, you’d take a beating”).

Last week, I had a man ask me to come sit on his lap and, when I was on slit lamp, he brushed my hair from my cheek so he could “see my ear better”.  Now, as my friends know, I don’t really respond well to being touched by strangers (then, again, who does?).  That was the fastest I’d ever done Volk in my life.  I was just happy to get him out of my room.  Now, I know it doesn’t seem like much (and, certainly, it’s nothing compared to what I described above) but it made me very uncomfortable.  For the rest of the day, I was a little on edge when meeting each new patient.

Weirdly enough, my friend was dealing with an inappropriate patient around the same time that day.  She was testing a 74 year old man who was acting strangely during the test and then, at the end, he started grabbing her hand and trying to kiss her.  She told him that he was being inappropriate and left the room, asking a male staff member to come in.  The 74 year old was post-screened and dispensed and nothing was said about it, apart from my friend placing a note on his file (to request a male optom in the future because of his behaviour).

I felt that she dealt with that situation in the best way possible – she left as soon as the behaviour started and asked another staff member to come into the test room with her.  In this case, it was at the end of the test but, if you feel threatened at any time, I would advise you to leave the room and find a member of staff who can come in and sit with you for the remainder.  You don’t need to tell the patient it’s because of their behaviour – you can say that the staff member is in training at the moment and will sit in on the rest of this test.  If the patient objects to this, then you can either try to fit the patient into a male optom’s clinic to complete the test or ask them to leave and rebook with a male optom.  You aren’t being silly if you feel threatened or if you feel someone is acting inappropriately.  The priority is always your safety.

For balance, when I was at uni, I worked weekends in practice and we had a lovely (male) audiologist who came in twice a month.  He was very friendly and his patients loved him.  Some of the older ladies would tell him filthy jokes, which he admitted made him a little uneasy, but there was one patient who made him very uncomfortable and he would tend to speak to her outside the room if it was an issue with her hearing aids rather than being alone with her.  If he had to have her in the room to conduct an examination or to do some tests, he would ask one of us to come in.

In the end, it’s not unprofessional if you seek help in these situations.