Optometric Management Tip # 100   -   Wednesday, December 17, 2003
The biggest challenge facing optometric practices

You may have noticed that this is Tip #100! I know I did... that's a lot of tips! When I began this project almost two years ago, I had a good bank of ideas to share, but I wasn't sure how long I could keep up the pace of a new tip every week. I was also not sure how well this weekly e-newsletter would be received by my professional colleagues. I'm happy to say that that the Management Tip of the Week (MTOTW) has proven to be quite a success and it enjoys a growing circulation of over 15,000 subscribers worldwide. I truly enjoy writing the tip each week and I still have many more good topics to come.

Thank you

I'd like to thank you, the reader, for your ongoing interest and support. I appreciate the many e-mail responses I receive from readers each week, and many good tip topics have come from your questions and suggestions. I'd also like to thank Vistakon for its sponsorship of this newsletter. Vistakon is a leader in educational support for all the eye care professions and the MTOTW is fortunate to be able to partner with such an outstanding company. If you enjoy receiving the MTOTW, please let the people at Vistakon know that you appreciate their sponsorship. Finally, I want to thank Optometric Management and Boucher Communications, Inc., the publisher and distributor of this newsletter. I'm fortunate to work with many great people at BCI. They are behind the scenes, but they make the MTOTW happen each week.

On with the tip

I usually try to make my tips practical and useful, but this week, I thought I would be a little more philosophical. The holiday season and the end of the calendar year is a good time to reflect on your professional goals. Is your practice all you want it to be? Is it on track to provide the personal income and professional satisfaction you hoped for? If not, let's step back and look at the big picture.

First, recognize that we are optometrists, which by definition means that we did not major in business administration in college. A small percentage of ODs may have some training or some natural aptitude for business management, but most of us did not want that as our career. We're doctors first, but success in practice depends on business skills as much or more than clinical ones. Fortunately, we can learn the business skills, and we can find a good balance between clinical and administrative duties.

Our Biggest Challenge

I believe the biggest problem facing most optometric practices today is lack of patient demand. We just aren't busy enough. We may have dreamt of the day we would hang up our shingle and people would line up to see us, but it just doesn't happen like that.

We could say that there are too many ODs, or too many optometry schools, or too many ophthalmologists, or too many chain optical stores, mega retailers, mail order contact lens companies, and so on. But I can't control any of that, so I prefer to say that there are too few patients. Now that is something we can control, at least in our individual practices, and the way we control it is called marketing. Marketing can take on many different forms, and it can be done in a professional manner, befitting the image we want for a health care practice.

Before we consider your marketing plan, however, consider what a sizeable increase in patient volume could do for you. If demand for your services were strong enough, many problems you face now would be easily solved. Of course, a high volume of patients would bring its own set of problems, but wouldn't those be great problems to deal with? Assuming high demand, you could opt out of poor-paying discount vision plans, you could raise your fees, you could move to a larger office, purchase advanced clinical instrumentation, hire more staff and delegate more, install your own optical lab, hire a top-notch practice administrator to take care of many management duties, and bring in a CPA firm to manage your practice bookkeeping and payroll. And, ironically, many of the things you just did would actually serve to further increase patient demand... an upward business spiral occurs! Sounds good doesn't it?

So how do we increase patient demand?

We do it through marketing, but I happen to believe that the best kind for an independent optometric practice is one-on-one marketing with the patients in your office. When done correctly, word-of-mouth referrals can be dramatically increased. I'll admit that this sounds like a slow process, and it will take 2 or 3 years before you notice a big difference, but it is the best way to build any professional practice.

The key to this form of internal marketing is more complex than I can go into in one tip - but I'll revisit it in future issues if I can sense that there is reader interest. I can, however, highlight the two biggest factors that go into your successful marketing plan.
  1. Make your practice appear to be the way you want it to become. How do you know when its time to move to a new office, or buy that new instrument, or re-do the optical with top of the line display furnishings? Many doctors are waiting for some indication that business is good enough to warrant such an expense. In truth, there usually is no such sign. Many doctors wait their whole careers and it never happens. The investment move often must come first and independently, and then the increased business follows. What if the increased business doesn't follow? Well, it generally will, but just take small enough steps that the practice won't be in jeopardy if the results are less than planned. There is no shame in failing in a business decision, only in not trying. There is always some risk in business.
  2. Become obsessed with customer service. Forgive my use of the business term "customer service", I know we see patients, but this term is best at getting across the service mentality that I'm trying to advocate. Most doctors truly don't get this and their offices reflect anything but good customer service. Excellence in customer service has been the key to success in every business in history. Your office is no different.
I welcome your thoughts on this subject. More to come.

Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management