Successful Contact Lens Practice

Practitioners offer tips for building a more effective practice.


Successful Contact Lens Practice

By Joanna Cosgrove
November 2000

Practitioners offer tips for building a more effective practice.

What are the hallmarks of a successful contact lens practice? Of course, a thriving patient base and gainful year-end profits are the obvious benchmarks, but the fundamental definition of success is rooted in the groundwork laid early in a practitioner's career. By combining the desire to help others with a keen business sense, your patient base and profits will soon fall into place.

"I've seen practices that have 15,000 patients who aren't successful, and I've seen practices with great profitability that aren't successful," says Walt West, OD, of Brentwood, Tenn. "It's about the successes you have every day with effectively communicating with patients and in effectively and efficiently managing an office staff. Those are the things that determine who are the people others look to and consider successful."

Patients Build Success

First things first, you can't have a practice without patients. And how you interact with and treat your patients is part and parcel of furthering your success. "You need to make each patient feel like he is the most important person to walk in your door," says John Schachet, OD, of Englewood, Colo.

Because referrals play such a large part in the development of a patient base, taking a patient's considerations into account is a top priority. "Always treat patients the way you would want to be treated, with professionalism, respect and compassion," says Barry Farkas, OD, of New York City. "What brings success is the ability to satisfy the needs of your patients in an efficient and professional manner. Satisfied patients yield referrals. That's what a successful practice is all about: growing your patient base."

Referrals may bring new patients, but the greater challenge lies in maintaining those new patients. "One of the most gratifying things in my practice is to care for patients year after year, and then provide care for their spouses and children," comments Walter Choate, OD, of Madison, Tenn. "I still take care of the first patient I saw on the day I opened my practice, and I have had the privilege of caring for her whole family."

Practitioners wonder what they can do financially to be successful, but what matters most is the success that one has with patients. "The number one thing that doctors can achieve with patients that will be profitable in the end is to build a relationship," comments Dr. West. "Patients see doctors because they want to understand what is happening with their vision and eye health. All too often the examination is completed, and the patient is told what's going to be done but never given any insight into why, what it will do for him or how it will take him from where he is to where he needs to be. The one variable that has helped in being successful is not only my ability to communicate with patients but my willingness to do so."

But such communication should come at a price that adequately compensates a practitioner's talents, expertise and time. "Patients will pay for quality products and services," says Dr. Rex Ghormley, OD, of St. Louis. "For example, when choosing where to eat dinner, you could eat fast food, or you could go to a very nice French restaurant and have a bottle of wine with dinner. Either choice will fill your stomach, yet the latter will cost you five or six times more--but people do it all the time because of the quality of the food, the expertise of the chef and the atmosphere. It's not any different in this experience. Just like a chef is an expert in a fine restaurant, a contact lens practitioner needs to be an expert in his 'kitchen.'"

Embracing New Growth Opportunities

Continued education plays a large role in building a contact lens practitioner's success. Actively seeking out new technologies, attending educational seminars and participating in studies contribute to a practitioner's overall capability to prescribe all types of lenses--a skill that aids in growing and maintain a thriving contact lens practice.

One segment poised for certain growth is the presbyopic market. There is currently no corrective surgery for the presbyopic patient, and the baby boomer demographic is shaping up to be a very lucrative prospect. "Look at amount of income that baby boomers control,"says Dr. Ghormley. "They don't hesitate to drop a large amount of money in your dispensary for designer frames and progressive bifocals. As well as monovision works with many patients, it's still not as natural as a bifocal system. Many practitioners have no clue how to fit a rigid bifocal contact lens."

Continuous or extended wear lenses should also prove fruitful, thanks to vastly improved lens technology. Three lenses may soon be approved for 30 days of continuous wear: Pure Vision from Bausch & Lomb, Focus Night and Day by CIBA Vision, and on the rigid side, the Menicon Z lens by Menicon USA. Says Dr. Ghormley: "These lenses will have between three and five times more oxygen supply than the most popular lenses currently on the market. Essentially, the problems with past extended wear lenses just aren't there today. People want refractive surgery because they want to be able to see first thing in the morning, and they don't want the hassles associated with contact lenses. But if you can fit them with a lens they can wear 30 days at a time, you solve that problem."

Although some growth can come as a result of fitting unsuccessful refractive surgery patients, the advances in refractive surgical technologies beg the question: what impact will advances in technology have on specialized contact lens practices? Art Epstein, OD, of Roslyn, NY, calls his practice finite. "Our practice in its current form must cease to exist because all the industry needs is an effective surgical or medical treatment for keratoconus, and a significant hunk of our patient population will essentially disappear," he says. "But in a sense, the practice is self-renewing because every attempt to push the envelope with surgical correction tends to cause some damage. We currently have a growing population of unhappy post-refractive surgery patients. Certainly, I enjoy helping patients who need special care, but I would prefer to see the practice have no reason to exist because I'd rather see a world filled with healthy patients."

A lesser factor contributing to overall success is marketing. Thanks to the Internet and the World Wide Web, improved marketability is a mere mouse click away. Many practitioners have utilized these tools by becoming active contributors to contact lens bulletin boards. For some practitioners, web sites have even become globally accessible commercials for their practices' specialized services.

"E-commerce and the Internet will forever change the relationship we enjoy with our patients," says Dr. Choate. "Today's patient is much smarter, better informed, and at the same time, more skeptical than patients we saw just a few years ago. We must constantly discover new ways to help educate our patient base regarding the elements of quality care. In short, we must serve our patients and cater to all of their needs. If we don't, plenty of businesses are waiting to take care of them for us. The successful practitioner who will survive beyond the next 10 years must be a good steward of his or her practice resources and patient base." 

Joanna Cosgrove is a freelance writer based in Media, Pa.


Effective Staff Delegation

The pressure to maintain the growth and profitability of a practice has pushed many contact lens practitioners to the edge of overload. One growth strategy in this environment is to hire and train a staff to accept responsibility and delegation of the data gathering responsibilities. Brentwood, TN, optometrist Walt West terms this philosophy "practicing six-handed optometry."

"Efficient delegation gives me time to analyze data and make decisions with that data on the patient's behalf," he says. "The most important thing I do is sit down with every patient to help them understand how that data translates into improved vision or eye health by the recommendation of professional service and/or materials."

According to Dr. West, optometrists are unique among other health care professionals because they are less likely to delegate--a trait most likely held over a from their clinical training, where they were taught to gather the data and analyze it. "Early in an optometrist's career, you don't initially have cash flow to have assistants to work with you so you fall into the habit of doing things they way you did them in the school clinic," he says.

Assembling and training a consistent staff is key. "I often hear doctors say, 'I can't find good people to hire,' or 'When I find good people and hire them, they don't stay.' If you asked the doctor what responsibilities his staff has, you would find that it's fairly limited," says Dr. West. "We bring someone on staff who knows nothing about optometry and build her basic skill sets to allow her the opportunity to accept greater responsibility. Therefore, we can delegate more to her, and as a result, she becomes a more valuable employee."

In the end, effective delegation promotes a positive growth cycle. "First and foremost the patient is benefited because it allows you to see patients more efficiently, secondly the staff is benefited, thirdly the practice as a business entity is benefited, and finally the practitioner as an individual is benefited," says Dr. West. "Everybody that's involved in the process is better off as a result of efficient delegation and improved profitability."