Article Date: 8/1/2006

fix this practice
Look Before You Leap

The success of your relationship depends on how you define it.

RICHARD S. KATTOUF, O.D., D.O.S.

Q: I joined an independent practice as an associate five years ago. The senior (owner) doctor promised me the ability to buy-in after two years. He has been dancing around the issue for the past three years. Any advice?

  Dr. T. Shurtz Via E-Mail

A: No one likes a "Monday morning quarterback." From your question it appears that you had no "associate contract." This is a common error that adversely affects both associate and owner. Optometrists must understand that verbal or handshake agreements leave a tremendous amount of gray area in their professional marriage. A professional consultant should negotiate the associate agreement to assure that both parties are represented in a manner that results in a fully-defined set of points that leave nothing to chance. In my years as an optometric consultant, it never ceases to amaze me how many O.D. owners and new associates join forces with nothing in writing. This can be dangerous and expensive to both doctors.

Competition at its worst

Dr. Harvey, an owner O.D., called my office and informed me that his associate of six years left his practice and opened a competing office less than one-half mile from his. My first question was, "Do you have a written associate agreement and had you verbally agreed to a 'buy-in?'" Dr. Harvey told his associate at the commencement of their relationship that if there was good chemistry between them, the associate would start the buy-in process. Call it procrastination, the ostrich syndrome or just naivete, there is no excuse for this lack of planning. Prior to retaining me as his consultant, Dr. Harvey sued his former associate. The associate was marketing to patients from Dr. Harvey's practice and had the entire practice database on computer disc. But, with no written contract, there are no teeth in the lawsuit. This could all have been prevented. Now, Dr. Harvey and his former associate have the stress of a lawsuit along with huge legal fees. I intervened and was able to get the former associate to cease direct marketing of the patient base. The problem is that Dr. Harvey now has a competitor who should have been his partner. 

Play it safe

Let's go over what to include in such a contract. In order to protect both owner and associate, the agreement must have:

� A restrictive covenant. This prevents associates from opening a competing office and includes the area radius in miles (accepted by the county court) and number of years (usually three). A financial penalty is common if the doctor breaks this portion of the agreement, usually in the form a large monthly payment for a defined number of years.

� A buy-in clause. This defines the time at which the associate can begin the buy-in process. Having the practice appraised prior to the association is a negotiable point.

All in the planning

As I travel around the country, I observe that doctors have more than adequate clinical skills. These same doctors lack plans and controls in the business. Bringing an associate into your practice can be one of the best or worst experiences of your career. Do not be casual in your approach.

DR. KATTOUF IS PRESIDENT AND FOUNDER OF TWO MANAGEMENT AND CONSULTING COMPANIES. FOR INFORMATION, CALL (800) 745-EYES OR E-MAIL HIM AT  ADVANCEDEYECARE@HOTMAIL.COM. THE INFORMATION IN THIS COLUMN IS BASED ON ACTUAL CONSULTING FILES.



Optometric Management, Issue: August 2006