Adding an Associate OD, Part 3: Transferring Patients
August 20, 2014
In this third part of my series on adding an associate optometrist, I will cover how to transfer patients who have traditionally seen the senior doctor over to the new doctor.
As I mentioned in the first part of this series, having a backlog of patients of at least one week of solid appointments is an important prerequisite for bringing on a full time associate doctor. If you are fortunate enough to have that and if you hire an OD, how do you get those loyal patients to see the new doctor instead of you? Read on and I’ll provide some tips for that.
I believe it is the responsibility of the practice (the owner and office manager) to fill the new doctor’s schedule. Sure, some patients will like the new doctor and will refer their friends and family, but I don’t think it is a good approach to assume the new doctor will build his or her following from scratch. They need to be fairly busy fairly fast for the employment relationship to work financially. The senior doctor should want to move as many of his patients to the new doctor as possible. If you are not sure on that point, you may want to reassess the plan for an associate. There should be a non-compete restrictive covenant in place (if allowed by law) to prevent the associate from leaving the practice and soliciting the patients.
Get staff on board
Once the senior doctor is on board with the goal of trying to move patients to the associate, the next job is getting the staff on board. Many staff members are not sure what they are supposed to do when patients call to schedule an appointment for an eye exam. You need to tell them clearly and repeat it often that the goal is to fill the new doctor’s schedule. The staff should work hard on that goal. Keep in mind that staff members naturally think the senior doctor is the best doctor in the world. They know that the patients love the senior doctor and since the staff want to do their best for each patient, they tend to offer those appointments first. Tell the staff that for business reasons, you want to move patients to the new doctor and discuss the factors below as tools for that.
We always want to honor the patient’s choice of doctors, but we need to be creative in finding ways to help the patient accept the new one. Here are a few ideas:
Make the new doctor the only doctor who is available for highly desired appointment times. Schedule the new doctor to work a couple of evenings per week until 7pm or later and every Saturday. Early morning appointments are also in demand. The senior doctor should no longer work these hours at all. These are the easiest appointment slots to fill and the new doctor will quickly be very busy during these times. Don’t be too worried that the new doctor (and many staff members) will have a work schedule they don’t like, it is really not that bad. When employees work a couple of long days and 8am to 1pm on Saturdays, they get a day off during the week and still reach their 40 hours. If you want to build your practice, you need to be convenient for the public; especially those patients who have jobs!
Reduce the senior doctor’s patient care schedule. If the senior doctor usually sees patients four days per week, cut it to three days when the new doctor comes on board. This increases the senior doctor’s backlog and makes it more convenient for some patients to switch. Some patients will want to stay with the senior doc and that’s fine; he is still available if they don’t mind waiting.
Sell the new doctor. Teach your staff to say something good about the new doctor when patients call to schedule appointments. Start by offering an appointment with the new doctor first by saying: “Dr. Smith has an opening at 4pm on Thursday.” If the patient has questions about Dr. Smith, reply with: “Dr. Smith is a wonderful doctor. Our patients just love her! She is so nice and she has excellent training. She is my eye doctor now as well!” Avoid positioning the associate as second best.
If patients act unsure because they always have seen the senior doctor, your staff can reassure them that they can see the associate doctor this time and return to the senior doctor next time. There is no problem with seeing either doctor and they share all the records.
You could have the associate doctor see all urgent squeeze-in visits. These patients need to be examined today and they really don’t have much choice if the only doctor available is the associate.
The senior doctor could refer some of his patients directly to the associate and reappoint them for her. Let the new doctor be an expert in some areas. Consider dry eye, ortho-K, vision therapy, and glaucoma as some possible specialties to refer in office.
Preappointing is very popular, but there are some drawbacks and one is that it is harder to move patients over to a new doctor if they have an actual appointment with the senior doctor. It is just bit awkward for the staff member to suggest changing doctors. If the patient is calling for an appointment, it is easy to offer the new doctor first. If you have a long time to plan ahead, you could switch routine vision plan patients to traditional recall via email or post card.
Introduce the new doctor when there is time and have him introduce himself. If the patient flow is a bit slow, ask the associate to drop into the exam room so you can introduce him to your patients. Some practices have the new doctor perform part of the exam along with the senior doctor, but I have some concern that the associate will come off as the junior assistant, which would be very bad for the reputation. I think it is great for the associate to hang out in optical and say hello to patients who drop in. An optician can still do the work, but a little chit chat about eye care is a good practice builder.
In the next issue, I’ll cover ways to help the associate doctor produce higher revenue and we’ll wrap up this series.
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week
Dr. Gailmard's new book, Practice Management in Optometry: A Blueprint for Success Based on the Optometric Management Tip of the Week, is now available on Amazon.