NO ONE definition appears to apply to all eye care alliances and buying groups. At one end of the continuum, there are those operating primarily as buying groups, offering their members discounted products and services. Others extend benefits to include a combination of education, consulting services, mentor programs, networking opportunities and more. Then, there are those alliances that offer a full portfolio of products, services and benefits, along with discounts. The benefits (and the cost) of membership in each group runs the gamut.
And what are the specific benefits and lessons that can be gained? OM interviewed a number of optometrists and practice managers in the United States and Canada who belong to buying groups and eye care alliances. We asked one question: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned or benefit you’ve gained from being part of an eye care alliance/buying group? Their answers follow.
LEVERAGE SUPPORT FROM THE GROUP
I have learned from (our alliance) to reach out to others. Don’t be afraid to ask other practitioners questions about how they handle situations. So many people have had the same experience or faced the same challenges, that it is simply unnecessary to reinvent the wheel.
– Brian Abert, O.D., F.A.A.O.,
Vista Eye Care, Thornton, Colo. (PECAA)
COMPARE METRICS TO MAXIMIZE POTENTIAL
We have learned that “if you measure it, it will improve.” Keeping a close eye on the metrics of your practice, knowing what those metrics should be and having the ability to compare your metrics with other O.D.s will go a very long way toward maximizing the potential of your business — even further, if you can find people who have metrics better than yours and learn from them. It becomes a very powerful tool.
– Robert Allaway, O.D.
Shuswap Optometric Centre, British Columbia (Eye Recommend)
SAVINGS IS NO. 1
Because of my alliance, I have the safety and benefits of a large corporation while maintaining my independence. We have peer meetings several times a year in which 10 practices come together to discuss our individual frustrations and our opportunities for success. The information from these gatherings is readily available to the whole network of offices, giving everyone a chance to learn and to grow. But the No. 1 reason any office usually joins an alliance is to save money, and my practice has saved well over half a million dollars in the past nine years!
– William D. Altig, O.D.,
Altig Optical, Fort Worth, Texas (Vision Trends)
ACCESS TO PRODUCTS, SERVICES AND EQUIPMENT
My vision alliance has provided discounts on an extensive selection of products, services and equipment that would otherwise not be obtainable. The savings have been greater than the monthly membership fees. Staff education webinars, business management consultations, billing and coding and marketing design are all provided.
– Frank Aulicino, O.D.,
Vision Care Associates, West Mifflin, Pa. (PECAA)
LONG-TERM PLANNING STRATEGIES
The best practice management lesson that I have learned has been long-term planning. Associating with other like-minded business optometrists has been so helpful in generating ideas and goals so that I can better chart the course of my practices. My alliance does a great job of connecting similar practice owners to one another, as well as making the leadership team available to aid in making strategic decisions now, that will change the future of the practice. Whether deciding where to move a practice location, to maintaining the right leadership and staffing, to deciding which managed care plans are appropriate, my colleagues have helped me to guide the business in the right direction.
– Tim Birtwhistle, O.D., M.B.A.,
Progressive Eyecare, Indianapolis (Vision Source)
POWER IN NUMBERS
Throughout my career, practicing for 33 years in a private professional practice setting, I have always appreciated how much more we gain as a profession when we are united and take advantage of strength in numbers. This is exactly the power we receive with organized optometry and with my buying group. This alliance allows a practice to take advantage of more serious negotiations in price of goods and services that an individual practice simply does not have the power to achieve on its own. My buying group, with all of its resources, gives me and my practice a competitive advantage to compete more successfully with the larger corporate chains and significantly improves my bottom line.
– Scott Daly, O.D., F.A.A.O.,
Santa Cruz Optometric Center, Santa Cruz, Calif. (Vision West)
ADD MARKETING AND ADVERTISING TOOLS
Having a marketing team that I can reach out to through our alliance has been so helpful. It saves me time and takes something off my plate. A lot of private practices don’t have a marketing knowledge or background. Leaning on our alliance for support has been great. This includes our website or even advice on where we should invest advertising dollars. Our alliance gives us more tools to put in our tool box so that we can better manage our clinic.
– Sherry Dawson, practice manager
Kennedy Vision, Plymouth, Minn., (ADO)
GAIN CONTROL OF COST OF GOODS
In a profession that is constantly bombarded with lower reimbursements, greater competition and increased insurance requirements, learning how to control cost of goods while saving time is crucial. This has been our greatest benefit from working with the alliance. They negotiate prices with the vendors so we get great deals on premium products (increasing our profit margin) while combining all our invoices into one monthly bill, which saves us time. If you’re not finding more efficient ways to do things in today’s world, then your bottom line will suffer.
– Justin L. Funk, O.D.,
Premier Eyecare of Enid, Enid, Okla., (Alliance Group)
OPTIMIZING WEBSITES AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Website design, managing a Facebook page, Google Plus, social media, online reviews, etc. can be very overwhelming when owning a practice. Our vision alliance has made it easy on us. The alliance optimized our website for cell phones, and they regularly create and post content on Facebook for us, including several ads and contests.
– Heath Gilbert, O.D.,
Dayton Optometric Center Inc., Dayton, Ohio, (PECAA)
BENCHMARKING MADE EASY
Analyzing numbers has never been my strong point. When opening my practice, I wasn’t sure how I was going to analyze my business’ numbers to make the best decisions for the practice. The benchmarking tool with my vision alliance has made it easy for me to extract data, analyze it and measure it against other practices in the country. Now, every decision I make is based on what the data tells me my practice needs, as opposed to gut feelings and an emotional response.
– Kyla Hunter, O.D.
Aurora Eye Care, Grande Prairie, Alberta (Eye Recommend)
COST-EFFECTIVE TOOLS FOR MANAGEMENT
Every time we hire a new employee to fill an optometric technician role, we immediately log on to our alliance’s website to see when the next live technician training program is being offered. They do have some online resources to use, but nothing replaces a chance to work directly with an actual frame and face to learn the art of eyewear fitting and adjusting, along with the myriad of ophthalmic lens designs and terminology. Our alliance has also been instrumental in introducing our office to new ways of managing our office with greater efficiency and productivity. From EHR systems, to electronic billing and compliance, to office analytics software, our alliance has been invaluable in helping us find cost- effective tools for managing our practice.
– Edwin M. Liu, O.D.,
Foothill Optometric Group, Pleasanton, Calif., (PEN)
APPRECIATE STAFF AND IMPROVE PERFORMANCE
One foundational lesson I have learned is knowing your staff and showing your appreciation for each of them as individuals. This seems overly simplistic. However, many important tasks distract one in a busy practice, leaving little time for relationship building. My practice would not run as efficiently nor as effectively without my staff, who are a direct extension of me in caring for my patients. Asking one of my staff about his/her weekend trip or a daughter’s softball game is equally as important as building a relationship with patients. It improves overall staff morale and engagement, decreases turnover and disruptions, improves patient care and is rewarding for both the staff and the doctor.
– Sheri Roggy, O.D.,
Eye Associates, Iowa City, Iowa (Vision Source)
The best tips I have learned come from our peer-to-peer meetings, where doctors meet in small groups to share both challenges and successes. When our peers encourage us to make a change and show how they did, we can finally take that step, whatever change it may be. Last year, at this meeting, for me, it was using scribes/technicians in the exam room. The other doctors explained that I would not be as tired at the end of the day. Not doing the technical data entry, I could give my patients more attention, look them in the eyes and give my patients a better, more personal exam experience in less time.
– Jane A. P. Strong, O.D.,
Strong Vision Center, Cypress, Texas, (Vision Trends)
HIGHER RETURNS ON MARKETING DOLLARS
The most important lesson I have learned after 10 years of marketing our practice became clear to me after enrolling in my alliance’s new marketing program. When I first took over our marketing, we had many ads in multiple locations, not knowing whether they were actually effective. Since joining the “DONE4YOU” marketing program, we have more powerful advertising in the right places with better ROI. Our alliance handles the marketing plan, design and creation, implementation and ROI analysis. I now find our marketing budget is giving us higher returns with less work required from me and at a lower cost. I now have the time to focus on other areas of our practice.
– Nathan Sulerud, business administrator,
Blaine Eye Clinic, Blaine, Minn. (ADO)
STUDY GROUP MEETINGS
The hidden gem of our alliance is the local study group meetings. This allows us to remove the shackles on conversations we may have at our other optometric association or society meetings. All of us fall into the trap of thinking our situation is completely unique when, in reality, we all deal with similar challenges. Some of us have streamlined one hurdle and some another. At the study group meetings, we always have a great topic to start with, then get to compare notes and see how we all deal with issues. It never fails that I learn something significant at every one of these study group meetings.
– Joseph A. Terravecchia, O.D.,
Premier Eyecare of Cranberry Inc., Cranberry Township, Pa. (IDOC)
IMPROVED FRAME MANAGEMENT
For years our office frame dispensary was a mess, with poor organization and lack of proper pricing and cost management. In 2010, I read Dr. Fred Dubick’s 1-Hour Quick Bites practice management article (“Optical Boutique Time & Money Savers”) in the alliance’s monthly newsletter, and it changed my life. I learned to include barcodes on inventory to control costs and manage loss prevention. I began keeping current frame pricing in an Excel spreadsheet, so it could be kept in line with the fluctuation in wholesale pricing. And we put wireless laptops at each dispensing table, which were directly tied to our office management software as well as our ophthalmic laboratory ordering system.
– Bob Theaker, O.D.,
Hollister Vision Center, Hollister, Calif. (Vision West)
By being part of an alliance, not only do I get the vendor discount, but when I go to pay through the Alliance I get up to an additional 40% off, depending on the frame company. Additionally, I like that with the Alliance buying group I receive one detailed bill rather than one from each vendor. Instead of writing 15 to 20 checks through QuickBooks, I write one check. It makes my life much easier.
– James Tickner, O.D.,
Family First Vision Center, Lake Ariel, Pa. (Alliance Group)
CONTINUOUS LEARNING AND IMPROVEMENTS
We learned our already strong vendor relationships were exponentially improved through the alliance’s collective strength. We’ve gradually incorporated more of their business tools, metrics analysis and consulting options — most recently, this year as our new in-house lab manager dives deeper into frame board management, conversion rates, etc. All of this has solidified the moral of our story — we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we’re still learning seven years later!
– Kevin M. Webb, O.D.,
Kittery Optometric Associates, Kittery, Maine (IDOC) OM