Optometric Management Tip # 209   -   Wednesday, January 18, 2006
What if your practice is really slow?

Most optometric practices could use more patient volume, but this article is aimed at doctors who are seriously short on patients. Many of these extremely slow practices are new start-ups but no matter what the reason, the practice owner would love to see business pick up. Since most practices are built by word of mouth referral by happy patients, it takes time to develop volume. The growth is often exponential, but it must start somewhere before it reaches a critical mass. There is, however, quite a lot that a practitioner can do to cultivate referrals and jump start a practice. The one thing these doctors have on their side is time Ė there is usually plenty of that!

Here are some basic ideas to make things happen.

Keep the office open

As tempting as it is to save overhead costs when a practice is not earning much, I recommend you find a way to hire an employee to keep the office open and staffed during most regular business hours. This staff person need not have optical skills, so wages can be kept at a minimum, but you do want an ambassador for the practice who is friendly and outgoing.

Business may be slow, but you want to create the perception that your practice is strong and viable. Patients get a strongly negative signal when they call your office and rarely have the call answered by an actual human staff member. Answering services typically canít answer questions like ďare my glasses ready?Ē People will also simply drop in at your office during regular business hours and finding the door locked says youíre not a serious contender in the eye care arena. Posting odd hours is not enough if the visitor didnít see them or canít remember them. Access is a basic need of any consumer, and if it canít be met by your office, there are plenty of other providers that will. Patients canít judge the technical aspects of eye care, but they can and will judge the business basics.

The doctor in a new practice may have to take on the traditional role of the staff member at times out of sheer necessity, but I would work hard to keep it to a minimum. Try not to answer the phone yourself and try to have a receptionist greet patients. Your image is critical at this early stage of practice building.

Use some of the free time in your schedule to train your assistant in every aspect of practice administration and optical dispensing. As your employee becomes more skilled, he or she also becomes more productive without you.

Consolidate your patient schedule

Realize that you fill two vital roles in your practice: doctor and CEO. Since the doctor part is so slow, capitalize on the CEO part. Start by restricting your patient schedule so your management time is productive and uninterrupted. Of course, you want to offer enough patient care hours to be convenient, but there is no sense in spreading out a handful of appointments throughout the whole week. Consider something like this for patient appointments: Monday 9am-1pm; Tuesday none; Wednesday 2-7pm; Thursday 1-5pm; Friday none; Saturday 9am-1pm; Sunday office closed.

If appointment slots start filling up, just open up more days. Donít like evening or Saturday hours? Respectfully, I say work them anyway. Those times are the most convenient and the most demanded, and you need to cater to patient needs more then ever! When youíre booked solid a week in advance, then you can consider working your preferred hours, although Iíd be more likely to hire an associate to work the less desirable ones and keep the office open.

There are two big reasons for consolidating your appointments into fewer days. 1) You will take your management duties more seriously if they are scheduled. Donít be tempted to simply enjoy leisure time during your non-clinical times. You need to work on the practice. 2) Your practice will appear busier. When you group your patients together, your patients will see other patients and they will perceive a highly successful practice. That breeds referrals.

Get out of the office

Staying in the office all the time wonít get you noticed. Consider these ideas to get out and about and make something happen.
Best wishes for continued success,

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