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
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.
- Introduce yourself to other professionals. This may feel awkward at first, but start by
visiting local optometrists, ophthalmologists and opticians. Most will be very receptive and
friendly, and that is enough, but in some cases, inter-referral relationships may be built.
Most eye care professionals donít want to handle all the eye care needs that exist. Can you take
on what they donít want? Maybe itís low vision, or eye exams or glaucoma management. Who else
can you meet Ė primary care MDs, school nurses, child psychologists, chiropractors?
- Join the local Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce or other civic organizations. The networking
opportunities are huge and as you become known in the community as a person who is honorable, your
practice will grow.
- Become the optometrist at a local nursing home and bill Medicare and Medicaid for services.
- Join the AOA and the affiliated state and local society. The professional membership is a good
image builder and youíll be able to participate in events that build your practice. Local school
vision screenings are one example.
- Attend a national eye care conference. Pick one: SECO, AOA, AAO, Vision Expo East or West,
and others. Travel is cheap today, you have the time, and the practice-building energy is abundant
at these larger meetings. You will find many great new ideas. Take courses in practice management
even if you donít get CE credit for them!
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management