Article Date: 3/1/2001

LASIK: Part Three
Marketing your LASIK Practice

In the final part of our series on laser vision correction in the optometric office, we'll look at how to build patient volume and establish your practice's reputation as a provider of this service.
By Neil b. Gailmard, O.D., M.B.A., F.A.A.O., Munster, Ind.

Maintaining patient volume is certainly one of the biggest challenges you'll face if you decide to bring a laser and surgeon into your office. Even the largest laser centers are having difficulty, and the softening economy doesn't help the outlook for expensive elective procedures like laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK). You'll need to see at least 20 patients per month to find success with your own in-house laser vision correction (LVC) practice, although a better goal is double that number.

In this article, I'll point out some key points to keep in mind when creating a marketing plan for your laser vision correction services. Also, I'll discuss some ideas to help you implement the plan.

Perception is reality

Let's be clear -- laser refractive surgical procedures are part of the vision correction landscape, and they're here to stay. In spite of various market-driven ups and downs that will continue to occur, the procedure is growing in popularity.

The number of patients you presently co-manage for LASIK, or who even ask you about the procedure, may not have any relation to the potential you could attract by providing the procedure in your practice. O.D.s care for the majority of good LVC candidates. We treat the largest share of healthy, myopic and astigmatic patients in the 21- to 55-year-old age groups.

However, even this large patient base may not yield significant numbers of refractive surgery patients if they don't perceive the optometric practice as experts in the procedure. These patients are savvy, and they know you don't perform surgery. They trust you and are loyal to you with regard to general eye care, but many will innocently go elsewhere if they're interested in LVC -- especially if you're more neutral than proactive.

On the other hand, if you actually have a laser in your office, and you market this specialty internally and externally, the quality professional reputation that you've built over the years will serve you well in this new field. Your own patient candidates will stay with you, and possibly even more important, new ones will seek you. We've seen this in our practice, where LVC volume went from very low to quite acceptable when we launched in-house laser surgery last spring. And, 50% of our LASIK patients are new to our practice.

The marketing plan

By the time you're ready to market your LASIK practice, you'll have already done a great deal of planning with regard to clinical and patient care aspects.

You'll have developed all of the procedures for managing a patient from the first point of interest to the final follow-up visit.

These are just some of the tools you could use for effectively marketing the LASIK services in your practice. 

You'll also have appointed a laser vision coordinator for your practice, probably a senior technician who already knows your practice and has good patient rapport. Also, you should've trained your staff to answer questions about LVC and clearly defined your fees.

We built our marketing plan for LVC around four key parts:

  1.  patient seminars
  2.  free screenings
  3.  advertising
  4.  in-office promotion.

I recommend a marketing budget of about $5,000 per month, although this may vary based on your goals and needs. Initially, you may need to spend more to build public awareness of your new laser center and to get to the point where word-of-mouth referrals kick-in.

Patient seminars

We've all seen how our schedules back up when we give a chairside overview of LVC to a patient who asks about it. Do this three or four times in a day and you'll have serious time overflow problems. The procedure is complex, and you simply can't cover it adequately in a couple of minutes. We can defer to brochures and videos, and even have our laser vision coordinator discuss the procedure, but presenting a monthly patient seminar is a strong resource in patient education.

We fill our seminars with patients who ask about the procedure in the office and by running newspaper ads promoting the event to the general public. We also post signs throughout the office announcing the date of the next seminar -- one at the front desk and one in each exam room in a place where patients can easily see it from the examination chair.

We hold our seminars at 5:00 p.m. on a weeknight, so we can attract people after work, before they go home. We present our seminars in our office because we have a large conference room, and we want to perform a brief screening and consultation in our exam area after the lecture.

If you don't have a conference room, you could have the discussions in the office reception area after hours, or use a local restaurant or bookstore. Provide some refreshments such as soft drinks, coffee and cookies for added hospitality.

Information is key

Patients want and need to be informed about the realities of laser refractive surgery, and they can quickly recognize a sales pitch. You earn more trust by fully discussing the risks, quoting real research statistics about success rates and defining success. (Besides, this is the right thing to do anyway.)

I developed my own PowerPoint lecture presentation that lasts about 30 minutes. I don't recommend going any longer than this. Giving the talk is easy, the slides guide you through the content, and you simply explain the procedure as you would to a patient.

After the lecture, I invite questions and answers. We get many excellent questions that really show that the group understands and is interested. If you give a seminar and no one asks any questions, I would re-examine your presentation technique because you may be inadvertently intimidating the audience.

After the presentation, we invite the audience to stay seated so they can meet with one of our O.D.s for a one-on-one consult about their case. Our staff calls our established patients into the exam area first, and because we already have their records pulled, it's easy to begin talking to this group.

At the same time, our technician begins to call in the new visitors. If a patient is wearing eyeglasses, the technician performs lensometry on the spec- tacles. If the patient doesn't have eyeglasses, the technician performs an autorefraction. The results are recorded on our screen- ing form while the patient waits for the next available doctor.

After the screening, qualified candidates may schedule a consult exam and surgery date that evening if they wish -- many do.

Free screenings

In addition to seminars, we offer a free laser vision screening to anyone who wants one, by appointment. This is offered to our patients in the office and to people who call us seeking more information about LVC.

 

The Free LASIK Screening

You need to make some tough decisions about cases that are borderline at the time of screening. You and your staff must be well versed in when it's best to say no to a patient. Consult with the surgeon in advance so you're in agreement about how to advise patients who have the following:

  • thin corneas, as determined by pachymetry readings
  • flat pre-op K readings
  • larger pupils
  • mixed astigmatism
  • myopia, hyperopia and astigmatism near the range limits
  • presbyopia and monovision
  • amblyopia or poor visual acuity in one eye
  • incipient cataract
  • upper or lower age limit of patient.

Be sure to inform laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) screening patients that the screening doesn't take the place of a complete eye health exam.

Individual screenings are ideal for people who can't attend a seminar. One of our optometric technicians handles this entire visit, except for a brief chat with one of our O.D.s at the end to summarize the details of the procedure and answer any remaining questions.

The screening begins with the candidate watching a video about LASIK. We don't use a marketing piece here, but a tape that actually talks about the risks. After that, the technician takes a case history. He collects significant clinical data, including autorefraction, pupil size, tonometry, pachymetry and topography. Then, the technician answers any questions. If we deem the patient qualified for LASIK, and if she's interested in proceeding, we schedule a full consult exam and a surgery date. We send a surgery informed consent form home with the patient to read, along with a pre-op checklist of things to do and what to expect. LASIK screenings represent a significant investment in time, with no direct reimbursement, but they're a cornerstone of our effort to attract patients.

Advertising

To effectively market your LASIK services, you'll need to allocate most of your marketing budget to advertising. Newspaper ads are expensive but have proved vital to us in building a reputation in the community as a leader in refractive surgery.

Because our practice has no history of providing surgical eye care, it's even more important to let the community know about our services. One of the keys to advertising success is repetition. The public must see an ad many times for it to make an impact. Another key factor is projecting a consistent image that matches what consumers want. You must decide how you want to position your laser center -- will it be low price or professional and high quality?

We're presently running two types of newspaper ads.

1. Seminar ad. This ad serves as an announcement for our seminars and is quite effective in attracting potential patients to these discussions. It also has another important function: It positions me as an expert in LASIK to the whole community, even to those who've never attended a seminar.

2. Lifestyle ad. This ad offers a testimonial from one of our previous LASIK patients. The lifestyle ad features a photo of a patient, some background information about her job or hobby and a quote about how LASIK has improved her life. We've received many good comments about these ads, and I think they personalize the procedure, while highlighting the benefits of having clear, natural vision.
Other forms of advertising, such as cable T.V., billboards, radio and direct mail also have good potential for building the laser vision practice. Additionally, your practice Web site and your Yellow Pages ad should reflect your specialty in laser vision correction. Since your image is so important, it's best to meet with an advertising professional for guidance in your campaign.
We always position our office as the provider of laser vision correction services. We don't mention the surgeon's name in our ads because we don't want to divert attention from our practice. When someone asks our patients who performed their LASIK, we want their response to be the name of our practice.

In-office promotion

Patients form important impressions based on what they see and hear in your office. To build a new laser surgery practice, you should consider the typical patient experience. Here are a few in-office-marketing ideas:

Stay focused

An another way to build patient volume at your in-office laser center is to co-manage with other doctors. Although O.D.s have historically been reluctant to refer patients to other O.D.s, this emerging specialty may help us break through these barriers and work together. There should be an element of trust among our optometric colleagues that makes an intraprofessional relationship most desirable.

Marketing is identifying and satisfying the customer's wants and needs, so serving your patients is always the main focus of any marketing plan you come up with. Marketing an advanced specialty like LVC takes work and planning. If done well, it's an investment that pays you with both financial rewards and professional satisfaction.

Dr. Gailmard is in practice with Susan Gailmard, O.D., Katharine Moles, O.D., Michelle Millard, O.D., and Sam Lemon, O.D., in Munster, Ind. He's OM's chief optometric editor. You may contact him at neil@gailmard.com.


Optometric Management, Issue: March 2001