Article Date: 7/1/2009

How To Market Your Ocular Allergy Practice
allergy

How To Market Your Ocular Allergy Practice

Develop a rock-solid internal marketing plan to capture this lucrative niche.

JOHN RUMPAKIS, O.D., M.B.A., Lake Oswego, Ore.

More than 50 million people in the United States suffer from allergies. In fact, allergies are the fifth leading form of chronic disease and the third most common chronic disease in children younger than age 18.1 Allergic rhinitis and asthma are among the leading causes of absenteeism from school. More than 10,000 children miss school every day because of allergic rhinitis. In the United States, we spend $7.9 billion a year on allergies, including $4.5 billion in direct care costs and $3.4 billion in indirect costs, such as reduced productivity.2

Ocular allergy represents a strong component of this overall picture. Allergy sufferers typically complain of a stuffy nose and sinus pain, while itchy, watery eyes are the third most common symptom, affecting about 12% of patients.3 What's more, we now understand there's a strong link between rhinitis and ocular allergies. Patients account for about 16.7 million office visits a year for rhinitis.4 In addition, most allergy sufferers have seasonal allergies, which may have an ocular component, and about 25% have skin or eye-specific allergies.

Based on a sample of more than 8,000 optometrists, the American Optometric Association estimates that the median gross income per optometrist in the United States is $440,000 a year, and the median net income is $140,000.5 However, adjusted for inflation ($1,988 dollars), our median net income growth in the past 20 years has been only about $11,000. So, we need to increase our profitability. Allergy has that enormous profit potential for you if you properly market allergy care in your practice.

Build it, and they will come

This article focuses on your internal customers (existing patients) rather than on attracting new patients to the practice through external marketing channels.

One of the most important goals to set when developing an ocular allergy practice is to create the right environment for patients to tap into your expertise and education. The biggest obstacle that exists between you and a successful allergy practice is the patients' perception of your abilities. Patients don't keep up with your scope of practice. Therefore they don't know what you can do unless you tell them. The most effective way to do this is to develop a marketing communication plan. If you create the right environment with the right communication tools, you can build a very successful allergy practice with little or no cost.

See your future — be your future

This famous line from the movie "Caddyshack" has been echoed several times. How can we apply its teachings to allergy? In a traditional business plan, one sets goals, objectives, strategies and tactics for the specific campaign. Too often, the average O.D. wants to move just to strategies and tactics for marketing, while completely skipping over the goal and objective process. If you're able to outline some very specific goals and objectives for what you want to achieve with allergy in your practice, you can measure your progress along the way and then adjust how you apply your resources toward building your allergy practice. I'm an advocate of the SMART method of goal setting; each goal is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and has a Time frame. This method helps with breaking goals into their individual components without overcomplicating issues.

Let's say that you understand that roughly 42% of the U.S. population suffers from one or more symptoms of ocular allergy.6 A SMART goal related to this could be as simple as:

S: Increase allergy office visits to 20% of patient volume.

M: Current allergy office visits are 4% of patient volume, and we can measure the difference by office visit/diagnosis code statistics.

A: Easily achievable, as we mention that we provide allergy services and have the visit capacity within our schedule.

R: Very realistic, as we can double book our allergy follow-up visits at the top and bottom of each hour.

T: The time frame is 90 days before evaluating your progress.

Once you've outlined what you want to achieve and set benchmarks for reaching your objectives, you're ready to develop the communication message. If you can see what you want your future to look like, you can direct your actions to create it.

Finding allergy patients

Even in a successful allergy practice, most patients don't often present with ocular allergy as a primary chief complaint. Many, if not most, patients self-treat their symptoms with over-the-counter (OTC) medications. If you don't ask each and every patient whether he/she is using OTC medications and for what purpose, you're missing a critical opportunity to have a conversation regarding your education, expertise and ability to treat their allergic symptoms with far superior prescription medications that can improve their lifestyle.

The hidden gold mine

Your patient records are a gold mine of information. You can conduct a search by CPT code ICD-9 or prescriptions written. You may be pleasantly surprised by the number of allergy patients your database returns from through the years. Once you've identified your allergy patients, you can contact them by mail, e-mail or telephone.

To make internal customers aware of your ability to diagnose and treat ocular allergy, develop printed materials that the staff distributes to patients or that are incorporated into each and every patient visit. For example, why not have a one-page information sheet on ocular allergy, its prevalence and your expertise in diagnosing and treating it? Include the sheet with the paperwork that each patient fills out when initially presenting to the practice, or present it with the information they verify upon a return visit.

Your healthcare TEAM

Patients won't come to you for ocular allergy or tell you they're self-medicating unless they know that you, as the primary eyecare provider, should be treating this problem and that you're most qualified to do so. I'm often surprised that many employees don't understand or simply don't know the scope of what we, as O.D.s, can do. Does everyone on your staff know what conditions you can treat and what medications you can prescribe? They may not consider your work in terms of turning education and knowledge into dollars and cents. Follow these steps to increase your patients' awareness of your expertise in treating ocular allergy:

Educate every staff member on your skills so they can communicate them to patients on the phone, in the reception area and in the exam room. Hanging posters and providing pamphlets to educate patients are a start, but you'll need to get the message out through your receptionist, assistants and technicians, as well as during your conversation with each patient. Employees have the opportunity to speak with patients more frequently than you. So, they must be able to educate patients about your services. These employee-staff communications help you market yourself as an ocular allergy practitioner, which transforms your education and knowledge into an economic return.

Take advantage of every opportunity to educate patients about what you do and what you can do for them so they'll associate you with treating ocular allergy (and other problems as well). Whenever you see a patient, explain your training. Tell him you treat allergies as well as other conditions, such as glaucoma, infections and ocular emergencies. If patients don't know you treat these problems, they'll go to a practitioner who they believe will.

Take a personal interest in your patients. Let them know you care about them and that you're glad they came to see you. Tell them you're the most qualified to diagnose and treat their specific ocular problem, and develop an action plan they can easily follow. Remember: Each and every member of your healthcare team should be able to explain all that you do and your success in treating patients.

Drive home the message that your practice is based on clinical excellence by discussing the fact that you're aware of and can prescribe state-of-the-art medications available to treat ocular allergy. Patients will perceive the value of the treatments you discuss and realize they're much better than OTC medications.

All these steps will help patients build trust and confidence in you. They'll seek your advice, and recommend you to family and friends.

Be a good listener

As you inform each patient that you have the expertise in diagnosing and treating ocular allergy, be sure to strengthen your internal marketing strategies. Listening is an essential marketing tool for several reasons. Patients often say they want convenience in an allergy medication, which is one of the keys to compliance. Convenience is a strong marketing tool because it helps you make a clear distinction between a prescription medication and an OTC drug. To determine which medication is best for a patient, ask questions about his lifestyle, hobbies and the kind of work he does, and listen carefully.

Good listening skills will boost your patients' confidence in your recommendations. By being a good listener, patients perceive that you're making the best choice for their specific needs and preferences and not just treating them "like everyone else." I love the saying: "Patients don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." So, showing an interest in them is one of the best marketing strategies to employ. Listening and caring are two opportunities to promote yourself and your practice in all respects.

Show enthusiasm

Be excited, passionate and committed to ocular allergy. Have a frank conversation with patients using direct eye-to-eye contact instead of writing on your chart and mumbling something about ocular allergies. Remember: Patients will judge you on the quality of your communication, rather than on the quantity. So, communicate with them intelligently on their level.

Personalize the instructions

The best method of making a recommendation is to be genuine and personalize it for the patient. For example: "My drug of first choice for you is X based upon what I saw in our examination and what you told me about your symptoms and lifestyle. I want you to use this medication once a day, and I want to set up a follow-up visit with you in one week to evaluate how the medication is working."

You have to be direct with patients. They'll be happy to fulfill your expectations once you've explained your specific reasons for them. Patients want to be good patients, you simply need to tell them what it means to be a good patient. Don't leave them guessing about when they need to come back for a follow-up visit or what to do if they need refills. Confidently tell them everything they need to know about the medication, how to use it, what they should experience and how to get in touch with you. Don't leave anything to chance — engineer success into your presentation.

Just do it

Nike's trademarked slogan wouldn't have meant much if it was: "Just Think About It!" Now is the time to develop your plan for building your allergy practice — don't procrastinate. Your patients deserve to have the benefit of your education, training and expertise in ocular allergy. It's prevalent, easy to diagnose and treat, and it's beneficial to both your patients and your bottom line. OM

1. Chronic Conditions: A Challenge for the 21st Century. National Academy on an Aging Society, 2000.

2. Stempel DA. The health and economic impact of rhinitis. A roundtable discussion. Am J Manag Care. 1997;3:S8-S18.

3. Allergy and Asthma Foundation Of America, Annual Report, 2005.

4. CDC. Fast Stats A-Z. Vital and Health Statistics, Series 10, no. 13. 1999. Visit www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/ allergies.htm (Accessed June 3, 2009).

5. American Optometric Association. Caring For The Eyes Of America, 2007: a profile of the optometric profession.

6. Practice Resource Management, Inc.

Dr. Rumpakis is founder, president and CEO of Practice Resource Management, Inc., a consulting, appraisal and management firm for healthcare professionals. He can be reached via www.PracticeResourceMgmt.com.


Optometric Management, Issue: July 2009