Edit: I originally wrote this article prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. I was going to write a new article, fearing an article on the topic of building a specialty might appear tone deaf in this current environment. The more I thought about it, I decided not to change the article. Most ODs have newfound time on their hands; why not use it to plan your comeback?
Recently I was talking with a colleague who has built a very successful dry eye clinic. She also writes and lectures regularly on the topic of dry eye. I asked her what advice she would give to an OD considering this path.
“You have to love it!” she said.
That answer resonated with me. Regardless of what area you specialize in, it’s been my observation that those who experience the greatest success truly love what they do. I like to joke that eyecare professionals who become gurus in a certain area (vision therapy, myopia control, etc.) will bore you to tears at a cocktail partly talking about their craft. I mean that in the most admirable way. It’s not a grind for them, it’s a passion.
Without passion, what you’ll likely end up doing is “dabbling.” Dabbling rarely leads to impactful clinical outcomes for your patients or financial outcomes for your practice. From what I’ve observed, dabbling often ends with the OD (and staff) abandoning the effort.
As with most industries in transition, there is a healthy mix of uncertainty, fear, excitement and opportunity. I suggest you cling to the last two and keep reading. Uncertainly and fear are a byproduct of change. Excitement and opportunity are available to those willing to embrace change.
Optometry does not look today like it did ten years ago, and it won’t look the same ten years from now. Technology and changing consumer trends have created challenges for the traditional brick and mortar optometry practice. Certain aspects of eye care have become substitutable at a lower cost. A massive overhaul is not necessary, but it is time to consider a model for success in the years ahead. If “vanilla” describes your practice model, the years ahead may not be kind to you. I would also caution against shiny-object syndrome, which leads to dabbling in everything but specializing in nothing.
Maybe it’s time to pick a lane. What part of optometry do you love? If you could spend your entire day focused on one area of eye care, what would it be? What could you do that would truly not feel like work?
My advice would be to learn everything you can about that topic. Attend CE classes. Find mentors. Reach out to established experts and pick their brains. Invest in the necessary equipment. Get out of your day to day comfort zone and embrace your new role as an expert in a specific area. Build a brand in your community around this service. It may not happen overnight, but eventually patients will start coming to you because of your unique expertise, not merely because you accept their insurance.
Most ODs who specialize in a specific area still offer traditional eye care, but they made the strategic decision to differentiate themselves from their competitors. They chose this route because they wanted to, as opposed to waiting until they had to.
Not everybody will pay for your services, but you don’t need everybody when you specialize. You need the people who need you, and they will find you.
A final note on the current crisis. No one could blame you for wanting to crawl under a rock right now. None of us are immune to the emotional impact of fear and uncertainty but try not to let that define you or your actions over the coming weeks and months. Find time for exercise. Stay connected with others, even if it’s from a distance. Stay optimistic – this will pass. And ask yourself this: If I could reinvent myself or my practice, what would that look like? That’s the vision. Making it a reality is up to you.
Coronavirus Resources + Updates
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Dr. Vargo serves as Optometric Practice Management Consultant for IDOC. A published author and speaker with more than 15 years clinical experience, he is now a full-time consultant advising ODs in all areas of practice management and optometric office operations. For questions or comments about this article, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.