Article Date: 9/1/2006

practice profile
The Alternative Optometric Practice

This O.D. built a refuge from retail practice by focusing on a specialty market and specialty care.
BY RENé LUTHE, Senior Associate Editor

Summit Eye Care's decor was modeled on a historic local inn.

Though Dr. Ann M. Hoscheit was one of the founding partners of a successful eyecare practice in Gastonia, N.C., something was missing. "I felt the type of eye care I wanted to deliver was diverging from my partners," she says. When she realized what kind of care she wanted to give — "relational-based care," which emphasizes communication between doctor and patient without sacrificing excellence in clinical care — and identified a target demographic, she was well on her way to creating an optometric practice that fulfilled her needs as well as her patients'. Three years after its launch, her Summit Eye Associates offers full-scope, comprehensive optometry, specializing in contact lenses, ocular disease and dry-eye management. This is the story of how she made her professional dream a success.

Creating the answer

When personal and professional circumstances converged to lead Dr. Hoscheit to consider starting another practice, she asked herself what kind of culture she wanted create. The answer was, "an environment that promotes a balanced life — including family and other interests," she says. She knew relational-based care delivered in a welcoming, somewhat upscale atmosphere partnered with state-of-the-art technology was the environment she wanted.

So she set about looking for a place to create it. A friend owned an office park a block away from her original practice and she called to ask if he had space — he did. When it turned out to be a bigger space than she needed for the one-doctor practice she would have to start with, he told her to pay only for what she needed; when she got her first associate, she could start paying for the rest.

Ann M. Hoscheit, O.D., with her county's award for "Business Woman of the Year."

With the site in place, she resigned on Sept. 1, 2002, stopped work on Dec. 31 and started seeing patients at the new practice in January 2003. Because she already had a patient base of 9,000 at the first practice, bringing in patient traffic wasn't too difficult. "I had already developed relationships with a countless number of patients, seeing many of them for the 10 years I've lived in the area," she explains. "I think word of a personal touch spreads." Nearly two-thirds of the patients she notified of her move returned the letter requesting a record transfer. Her practice's motto: "You see, we listen ... and when we listen, you see."

Summit Eye Associates was sufficiently successful that Dr. Hoscheit was able to hire her first associate in Sept. 2005.

Make it special

To help her stand out from the competition, Dr. Hoscheit targeted a significant segment of the eyecare population: females aged 35 to 55. She was motivated, she reports, by the phenomenon of menopausal women and dry eye. "Nearly 50% of my contact lens patients are over the age of 40 (presbyopic)," Dr. Hoscheit says. "We've garnered a reputation as the place to go if you are presbyopic and/or if dryness impacts your contact lens-wearing experience."

She has developed the first of several planned "centers of excellence," a dry eye center where, in addition to the customary testing for dry eyes, they perform tear film analysis and saliva tests. "This allows us to measure androgens at the end-organ level (rather than what is circulating in the blood at the time of collection) to better ascertain what influence hormones have on the tear film," Dr. Hoscheit explains. "We can use this information in conjunction with the patient's primary care physician, or gynecologist, to discuss hormone therapy (including bio-identical hormones)."

Marketing strategies

Dr. Hoscheit's dedication to women's health is itself a means of gaining her community's attention. Her lecture, "Women's Health Care Issues for the Primary Eye Care Provider," is popular among the national optometric community. "It covers the most common cancer (lung) in women as well as breast cancer (including side effects of radiation/chemotherapy, etc.), common systemic diseases impacting women, dry eyes and menopause, as well as andropause," Dr. Hoscheit says. Additionally, she delivers a "lay-audience" version of the lecture to local women's groups.

In addition to the word-of-mouth referrals these opportunities generate, Dr. Hoscheit courts potential patients with a strategic marketing plan that includes newspaper ads, which typically include her photo and/or patients who are easily recognized by the community. She observes that they usually get a good response and attributes that to the personal touch of the photo. But she believes it's the marketing efforts that incorporate her "relational-based" approach to practice that really help her succeed.

For the practice's first anniversary, they held a "Put a Twinkle in Your Eye Day." They didn't see patients, but turned the office into a boutique, bringing in a manicurist, massage therapist, an eyewear trunk show, a jewelry vendor, a candle vendor and a variety of other personal services that appeal to her target patient base. "It's all about, 'come have fun with us,'" Dr. Hoscheit explains. Approximately 200 patients attended.

The practice also hosted a sunglass sampling and wine-tasting event. More than 100 people attended and they sold approximately $6,000 in sunglasses. The return on investment was $3 for every $1 spent. There's also a "mother of the year" contest, in which applicants write an essay about their mothers; the winner gets three months' worth of free flowers. Dr. Hoscheit plans to add a "graduate of the year" contest next year, offering a scholarship to the winner. Her strategy is to make her practice part of her patients' lives, not something separate they only think of once or twice a year.

Summit Eye Associate's optical area uses mirrors that make its inventory appear larger.

The divine is in the details

Dr. Hoscheit was closely involved in the design of her office. She wanted to create an ambiance that patients would find relaxing. Inspired by a historic local inn, she incorporated an Arts and Crafts motif. She also arranged the reception area so that patients were not crowded together, but could enjoy some privacy: Sitting areas are scattered throughout the office, accommodating up to 12 people, yet most of the time they are unaware of how many people are on-site. "Both men and women comment on how much they like the office," Dr. Hoscheit says.

The practice's optical design was custom-crafted using lots of mirrors. This makes the optical and it's inventory look larger and also distinct from every other optical in the area. Patient reading material includes current periodicals, along with an in-office newsletter titled, "A View from the Top" (a take-off on Summit's name). It includes updates on all areas of the practice (i.e., new dry eye treatments, new contact lens solutions, laser vision correction advancements, new optical frame line, new testing for glaucoma, etc). "The magazines are always nice, but we want our patients reading about our practice or their eye care whenever possible," Dr. Hoscheit explains.

A children's area resembles a cave and has a built-in video player on a constant loop that plays a recent Disney (or similar) release. This area also has books and toys for all ages. "It really keeps the kids occupied and you rarely hear a peep," Dr. Hoscheit says.

The patient restroom has a "diaper deck" for changing baby's diapers, further making the practice family-friendly. There's also a discreet sign offering Girl Scout cookies for sale.

The practice of the future?

Dr. Hoscheit's dissatisfaction with the status quo led her to create a practice that is both professionally and personally fulfilling. It's a desire she says she's seen in a lot of other female O.D.s. "So many female optometry students have asked me how you do optometry as a woman, and not give up being a wife or a mother," she says. "A culture that's friendly to those lifestyles is something female O.D.s want."

Her practice closes by 5p.m. every day, is closed on Friday afternoons (so staff can do those things that need to be done during regular working hours, such as doctor's appointments) and on weekends. "Our holidays are structured to take into account that women really don't get to rest until after the holiday — so we give our staff off Easter Monday, Thanksgiving and the following Friday, and Christmas and the day after."

Dr. Hoscheit's advice to students after graduation is to strike a balance early between work and family life, because, "it's hard to attain once you let it go." She adds, "Follow your dreams and goals without worrying whether they fit the established mold. And don't forget to give back to the profession."

Optometric Management, Issue: September 2006