Article Date: 12/1/2008

A New Toolkit For Optometrists
contact lenses

A New Toolkit For Optometrists

Learning how to use manufacturer's Web-based business tools may increase your bottom line and improve patient care.

FRANK CELIA
Contributing Editor


ILLUSTRATION BY PATRICK GNAN

Medical practitioners say it's all too easy to get so involved in clinical care, that they lose track of small details on the commercial side of the practice. But, these details require close and regular attention. Taken all together, they constitute the business fundamentals upon which a practice fails or flourishes.

"Sometimes I'm so wrapped up in the clinical aspects of patient care, that I don't even realize there are business issues affecting our bottom line," says Margie A. York, O.D., B.S., who practices in Gainesville, Texas. "One thing that I've learned is to check in with my staff more often about concerns or problems they may be encountering with contact lens orders."

Ordering, stocking and delivering contact lenses eats up a great deal of time and energy at most practices. However, in recent years, contact lens manufacturers have taken steps to help you and your staff manage this aspect of your business a bit more smoothly than in the past. They offer a "toolkit" of online business resources that include such services as placing orders, tracking shipments, generating and paying invoices, managing inventory and connecting electronically with both patients and vendors. These services provide a competitive advantage.

Online ordering

Almost all contact lens manufacturers offer some kind of online ordering option. Dr. York says her opticians like the convenience of online ordering because they can place contact lens orders after hours, pause in the middle of an order to serve another patient if required, and receive a visual confirmation that they entered all the information correctly. "We're in the digital age, so the sooner we can place orders, review statements and pay bills online, the better," says Dr. York.

Many practices now find it's most efficient to save orders in an online "shopping cart" throughout the day and to submit a final order at the close of business — whether that daily order is for one box of lenses or 100. This eliminates duplicate data entry and makes statements easier to reconcile without delaying shipments.

In most cases, you and/or your staff can track online orders, making it easier to tell patients when to expect delivery of their lenses. Manufacturers' automated order fulfillment and shipping processes have reduced delivery errors, as well.

"It really is better than the telephone," says Pam Day, optometric technician and clinic supervisor at a private practice in Helena, Mont. "So many times on the phone you get put on hold. Now, I can walk away from ordering if the doctor needs me to run tests on a patient, and I can come back to it and pick up where I left off."

"I open it [the Web page] up first thing in the morning and as contact lens orders come through, I type them in," she continues. "I cut it off at 1 p.m. because that is their deadline for shipping. So, every day if I have only two orders first thing in the morning, and then maybe at noon I might have two more, I can input them both at once and get only one shipping charge. I just minimize the Web page and just keep going back to it throughout the morning, which is nice."

Day estimates that, in addition to the convenience, online ordering saves her 10 to 15 minutes of work time each day. "I used to make three or four phone calls a day," she notes, "whereas this way, I can just input it all in. And sometimes when you are on the phone, you might be put on hold for five or 10 minutes."

Delivery almost always occurs within two days, she adds, and the Web site immediately informs her of whether the product is in stock. "I know the second I click the mouse, whether it [the product] is on back order or not, so I am able to call my patients and let them know right away," Day says. "A lot of times on the phone, they [the contact lens manufacturer] can't tell me right away if it is in stock … they have to call me back and let me know."

PRACTICE TIP:
Consider direct-to-patient shipping of contact lenses. Shipments of annual supplies streamline deliveries (one shipment instead of two or four) and reduce total costs for the practice and the patient.

The major soft contact lens manufacturers — Bausch & Lomb, CIBA Vision, CooperVision and Vistakon — all offer direct-to-patient shipping, which is a huge convenience to lens wearers. Aside from price, this delivery convenience was probably one of the chief reasons patients flocked to mail-order houses in years past, prior to big manufacturers offering direct delivery. A business model that encourages patients to purchase a one-year supply that is shipped directly to them further cuts costs and streamlines delivery, for both doctor and patient.

"My goal is to make the experience easier and more convenient for our patients," says Wayzata, Minn., optometrist Charles Lannom. "That allows me to spend my time doing what I like, rather than dealing with complaints and problems."

In addition, ordering online paves the way for taking advantage of consumer perks. For example, Dr. Lannom pays for his office's contact lens orders with a credit card that accrues airline mileage. In his group practice, the doctors divvy up the major lens manufacturers, each one taking responsibility for billing, inventory and other business issues related to that manufacturer, as well as accumulating the miles from lens sales. For Dr. Lannom, flexibility in invoicing and billing options is key, since he acknowledges that everybody has different payment preferences. Some doctors have found that dedicating a credit card for contact lens purchases is easier than combining contact lens orders with other types of business transactions on the same card, for example. When using personal credit cards, business advisors recommend that the practice clearly spell out issues, such as limits of usage, reimbursement and personal liability, in the practitioner's contract.

Pricing and service

Staying competitive with bigbox retail stores on contact lens pricing is a constant challenge for independent practitioners. The rebates available to patients who purchase a one-year supply of lenses are helpful. In fact, although many patients may be unaware of it, there is no longer much difference in the cost between the two. But, successful practices say service is still the big differentiator.

The staff at Dr. Ted Brink & Associates in Jacksonville, Fla., takes the time to follow up every time a patient asks to take his contact lens prescription elsewhere. "We always ask the patient if we did something wrong or if dissatisfaction with our price or service has led them to look elsewhere," says practice administrator Sam Bridges. "We get very honest feedback and often, when patients find out we offer the same online ordering convenience they can get from discounters or mail-order companies, they are happy to keep their order with us."

Some contact lens manufacturers are looking toward allowing patients to buy their own lenses online, as they can with some wholesale lens distributors. CooperVision already has a program up and running called Gotlenses.com. With this program, the patient registers at your office, where your staff enters the prescription information — a process that takes less than two minutes. Later, the patient receives a "pre-registration" e-mail that links to a personalized Web page at the Gotlenses. com Web site. The patient confirms the personal and shipping information, pays with a credit card, and usually the lenses ship within 24 hours. The service is free, and there is no loss of revenue because you maintain complete control over the retail price and prescription.

Inventory control

Whether to order by the prescription or to keep popular lenses in stock is usually a tough question among small to midsize practices. Ordering in bulk offers opportunities to save money, but it also means you must expend a great deal of time and expertise in determining how much stock to keep on hand and how much money you're actually saving.

To take the edge off this daunting task, CooperVision offers the Web-based Inventory Management Calculator, which allows the user to enter some simple figures to determine whether keeping an inventory is right for the practice. It calculates the timing and quantity of lenses to be ordered in bulk, patient cost and total savings. "In other words, it incorporates the financial impact of freight charges, giving a profitability differential and accurately depicting the financial impact of ordering in bulk vs. one prescription at a time for key products," says Mark W. Bertolin, vice president of sales development and technology at CooperVision.

Companies also provide online services to streamline other inventory tasks, such as reverse logistics, or returns. "With our inventory management system, we try to make the lens exchange process as efficient and hassle-free as possible," says Paul Smyth, head of American customer service at CIBA Vision.

In addition to business management tools, contact lens manufacturers offer a number of online resources that go beyond describing the specifications and benefits of a particular brand of lenses. For example, "CIBA Vision offers ProCare, which provides a resource library and allows you to look at fitting tips to augment in-person consultation," says Mr. Smyth.

PRACTICE TIP:
By saving online contact lens orders throughout the day to a "shopping cart," you may eliminate duplicate entries and make statements easier to reconcile without delaying shipments.

Seeking customer feedback

The eyecare world can expect more of these Web-based tools as the Internet continues to play a significant role in business transactions. Officials at contact lens companies say they're actively seeking customer feedback as to what further steps they can take to help businesses run smoother.

Vistakon recently invited more than two dozen doctors, technicians and office staff members to a first-of-its-kind "Ease of Business Forum," sponsored by the company's Customer Development Group.

Participants spent a day meeting with various departments and discussing concerns related to business issues, such as ordering, billing and shipping. "We asked them to help us make Vistakon a better company to do business with," says senior director Jack Rawle.

"I was impressed that Vistakon sought out our opinions," says Glenn Seifert, O.D., who traveled from Long Island, N.Y. to participate. "But I was blown away that they actually made changes based on our feedback. Many of us had complaints about invoicing, but within a few weeks of the meeting I had a completely re-vamped invoice that was much easier to understand."

Dr. Seifert wasn't the only one who saw the changes. In December 2007, doctors nationwide began receiving fewer monthly statements, with key information prominently displayed on the front page. Vistakon recently rolled out its E-invoicing program, allowing customer online review of invoices and monthly statements. Now, customers also can order lenses and pay their bills online.

"We want our customers' experience and our services to be the same high quality as our products," explains Paul Trinidad, product director and leader of the event.

It's an approach Peter Mouchlis, O.D., of Portsmouth, N.H., says ought to be duplicated not only by others in the contact lens industry but by doctors themselves. "Ideally, we should be looking at the entire patient experience, from the moment they call to schedule an appointment to the time they actually receive their new contact lenses. I'd like to get away from so much emphasis on price and rebates and move toward delivering a premium experience so that patients want to do business with us."

At Bausch & Lomb, Customer Experience Manager Jon Langfitt recently returned from a "world tour," where he spoke with customers in the United States, Canada and Europe about their e-commerce needs and wants. "We got some great feedback from them about what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong," he says.

Based on this information, the company plans to introduce a new Web site sometime in the first half of next year, he said. "The look and feel of the new site will be just easier to navigate," he explains. "We've got so many products with so many parameters that sometimes it can get confusing, so we want to make that as easy as possible."

Currently, Bausch & Lomb does about 20% of its sales volume online, according to Barbara McManus, director of customer marketing, and she says she expects that figure to grow rapidly in the coming years. The challenge now is persuading those who still might be a little leery of the Internet to take the first step. "Some doctors are early adopters and some are late movers," she says, "but I expect you will see this accelerate in terms of the doctors ordering online and direct shipment, and it will benefit everyone." OM


Mr. Celia is a freelance healthcare writer based in the Philadelphia area.



Optometric Management, Issue: December 2008