Article Date: 5/1/2003

contact lenses
Profitability with Specialty Contact Lenses
Think contact lenses can't be lucrative to your practice? Think again.
BY KEITH DAVIS, O.D.

In this day and age, it's all too apparent that making a profit with soft contact lenses is becoming increasingly difficult. Internet retailers and mega warehouse discounters have driven prices so low on spherical disposable or planned replacement contact lenses that it's almost impossible to compete: I've actually seen two-week disposables retail for less than for what I can buy them.

But take heart, all is not lost. There are still options available to the private optometrist to make profits in soft disposable or planned replacement contact lenses. Our practice has embraced these techniques and I'm happy to report that we are profitable in the contact lens market.

Find a partner

The best way to appear as a "big fish in a small pond" is to purchase a majority of your contact lenses from one or two manufacturers. This shows loyalty on your part, which the manufacturers appreciate. It also makes you appear to be a larger account and we know that larger accounts receive preferential treatment. When our practice wanted to do business with one toric manufacturer that had a stable lens, was reproducible and could manufacture cylinder powers as high as we needed, we chose Cooper Vision.

In choosing a contact lens manufacturer to partner with, I recommend that you look for the following characteristics:

Innovation. Does the manufacturer constantly strive to bring to market new technology in contact lenses? Or does it usually have "me too" products? Examples of contact lenses that I consider innovative are the Cooper Frequency 55 Aspheric and Cooper Frequency 55 Multifocal. Blanchard Contact Lens's Essential Soft Toric Multifocal is another. These lenses are not fit by a majority of practitioners and can set your practice apart.

Choose a manufacturer that does not market contact lenses as a commodity. We like to prescribe contact lenses that not only provide good vision and contribute to ocular health for the patient, but also those that are not viewed as commodities. A number of contact lens manufacturers spend millions of dollars per year to advertise their products. While this may raise the awareness of contact lenses in general and the marketed brand in particular, in my opinion it also strengthens the patient's belief that contact lenses are a commodity -- a commodity to be purchased as inexpensively as possible. For this reason, we generally avoid contact lens manufacturers that use the major forms of consumer advertising.

Volume discounts. It probably goes without saying that if you purchase more contact lenses from a manufacturer, you should receive lower pricing. Some manufacturers will tell you that they sell their contact lenses to all eyecare providers, retailers, vendors, etc., at the same price per box. They will also say that by doing this, they keep the retail price at a higher level. I personally find this hard to believe. If one vendor was going to purchase a million boxes from the manufacturer, I've got to believe there would be a volume discount. That's part of the capitalistic system.

Don't give your patients a reason to shop elsewhere

Our practice attempts to make purchasing contact lenses as easy as possible for the patient. We promote a "year supply of contact lenses" to all patients. This takes the patient out of the market and decreases his tendency to shop around for contact lenses. We offer discounts for buying a year's supply of contact lenses and also readily give out the manufacturer's rebate coupons on top of our discount.

Our patients may order contact lenses from our office via several routes: by phone, our web site or e-mailing us. We offer direct shipment of the lenses from the manufacturer to the patient, and we also offer a drive-through window. This has been a real hit with busy moms who have a carload of kids. Additionally, we stock boxes of contact lenses in the most common power ranges to insure that there is minimal delay in the patient receiving her contact lenses.

Consider specializing

Many of the optometrists with the busiest contact lens practices will tell you that one of the main reasons they are so busy is because they prescribe and fit contacts that are classified as specialty lenses. These include aspheric design lenses, toric lenses, multifocal lenses and tinted or opaque contact lenses. Specialty contact lenses are less likely to be found online and at warehouse discount centers.

Due to the fact that specialty lenses require greater skills to fit, you may command higher professional fees for your services. In our practice, we have multiple fitting fees for specialty contact lenses. The lowest of the specialty fees is the professional fee for fitting aspheric lenses.

We progress upwardly in our fitting fees, through the toric contact lenses and end on the multifocal soft contact lenses. The difference in our professional fees from a simple spherical contact lens fit to a toric or aspheric fit is about a 32% increase. The professional fitting fee for a multifocal lens is 49% higher. Over the lifetime of the patient, this adds up to a considerable amount of revenue -- with no material cost.

Rethinking astigmatism

Most of us were taught in optometry school that low amounts of astigmatism, 0.75 or less, were not significant overall in the fitting of soft contact lenses. We were taught to calculate the spherical equivalent and prescribe this for the patient; if the patient complained about the lack of sharp vision with the soft contacts, we were told to explain the low amount of astigmatism to the patient and that the contact lens companies did not have lenses that corrected for this low of amount. This was the best we could do.

With the release of the Frequency 55 Aspheric by Cooper Vision, this is no longer the case. Another aspheric lens, Choice A.B., is licensed to CIBA Vision, and is indicated for two-week replacement. I use the aspheric lens on a majority of low astigmats to provide the best vision possible. It has been especially useful in cases other than low astigmats -- for patients requiring better night vision, such as police officers or pilots, for example. The aspheric is also helpful with monovision patients and early hyperopic presbyopes. When the patient has both eyes very close in sphere and cylinder power correction, I place a spherical lens on one eye and an aspheric on the other. In the vast majority of cases, the patient chooses the aspheric.

Target the Baby Boomers

The later portion of the Baby Boomer generation is now reaching presbyopia. This group of patients is very young at heart and in general fights the aging process as much as possible (I am a baby boomer also). They work out regularly at the gym, maintain an active lifestyle and (a majority of the time!) watch what they eat. They detest anything that makes them appear older, including glasses and particularly bifocal glasses: These are the glasses of their parents. If they're going to wear glasses, they generally prefer progressive lenses. If they don't want to wear glasses, we now have several multifocal soft contact lens options to offer them.

Success within your grasp

Since the first disposable multifocal contact lens was released years ago, several other manufacturers and designs have appeared. The increase in number of lens designs to choose from has increased the practitioner's success rate. Our practice currently enjoys close to an 80% success rate with disposable or frequent replacement multifocal contact lenses.

There's no doubt that it has become increasingly harder to produce profits with soft contact lenses. However, I believe you should not admit defeat and allow the Internet and discount warehouse retailers to take over the contact lens market. By applying the principles I've outlined here, I'm convinced that you may still be profitable in the contact lens market.

Dr. Davis is private practice in San Antonio, Texas and is an assistant adjunct professor of optometry at the University of Houston, College of Optometry. He served as a clinical investigator for Cooper Vision aspheric contact lenses in 2001. You can reach him at Mkdavisod@aol.com.

 


Optometric Management, Issue: May 2003