Contact Lens Sales: Mail Order, the Internet ... What's Next?

editor's perspective

Contact Lens Sales: Mail Order, the Internet ... What's Next?

February 2000

Recently, I was chastised by a major mail-order contact lens company for mentioning one of their radio ads. The company claims to encourage patients (your patients, their customers) to return to you for examinations. Yet, the advertisement mentions inconvenient visits to the doctor's office to pick up lenses. I suggested that they were, in fact, discouraging your patients from going to your office and hence the disagreement (see Letters to the Editor in this issue).

A colleague of mine told me about a patient of hers who showed up for an exam wearing a colored contact lens. When asked where the lens came from, the patient replied, "From a mail-order contact lens company." But the patient reported that the lens didn't fit right. "Of course," said the doctor, "I didn't fit it to your eye."

While lecturing around the country last year, I heard a lot of stories about teenagers sharing their opaque soft contact lenses. Thank goodness Wesley Jessen got eBay (the Internet flea market) to stop selling used lenses or this sharing situation could be worse.

According to a recent New York Times article, consumers have purchased contact lenses over the Internet illegally. Two ophthalmologists reported cases of conjunctivitis and keratitis in patients who purchased lenses without a prescription. One of the sources indicated that the sellers did not confirm prescriptions with practitioners, as would be appropriate. A few state boards of optometry have taken legal action against one mail-order seller, and The Contact Lens Institute (CLI) is planning to propose legislation to protect consumers who buy contact lenses online. Recently, the FDA has sought to strengthen its authority to enforce illegal access to drugs over the Internet. Online pharmaceutical and device sales may be convenient, but if people get the drugs or devices without the proper prescription or care that's necessary, they're putting themselves at risk.

I have used these pages before to say that I support free enterprise, and for the right of all patients to purchase contact lenses from legitimate sources outside our offices, but they should never be able to get lenses that a legitimate practitioner hasn't prescribed. Report all cases of patients getting lenses from mail-order houses or the Internet without a valid prescription or where the absence of health care associated with these sources causes eye injury. Educate patients about the importance of examinations, have a good recall system and bond with your patients. Keep your fees in line, offer home or workplace delivery of lenses and make sure you provide the highest quality care possible, not just because it's profitable, but more importantly because it will keep your patients loyal.