I consult with many private practice optometrists who do not have evening or Saturday hours. Since office hours impact one's personal life, I certainly understand why doctors and staff would prefer to not work those hours. Evenings and Saturdays are often reserved for family or personal time. But the question I have to ask is... are we looking at the owner's personal life or are we looking at the business?
In many cases, the owner and the practice are tied very closely together. So much so that they feel like the same entity. But they are not the same and I urge you to separate them. As your practice grows, it is very smart to try to develop a system that does not depend too much on the doctor/owner. Build a business model where the doctor is also the CEO of a company. I would never try to make the case that the business is more important than one's personal life, but the office hours do not have to be covered by the owner or the existing staff. Let's look objectively at office hours as a business strategy and forget the personal aspect.
Practice growth and patient demand
Successful optometric practices are mostly built by word of mouth referrals by happy patients. The key to marketing a professional practice is a high level of patient satisfaction and loyalty and that is directly dependent on customer service and convenience. Many optometric practices can deliver high quality eye care, so success comes down to how easy are you to do business with? Do you have many competitive advantages compared to other eye care providers in your area?
Convenient office hours are a huge part of customer service. There are many providers open many evenings per week and Saturdays and even Sundays. Marketing is identifying and satisfying the customer's wants and needs.
Ideal office hours
I believe ideal office hours for a private optometric practice would be every weekday from 9am to 5pm plus a couple of evenings per week until at least 7pm and every Saturday from 9am to 1pm. That is at a minimum. If you can be open more late evenings and weekend hours, all the better. The office does not close during the lunch hour and is also not closed any half days or full days during the week.
I realize that small practices and start-ups can't be open all those hours. My basic plan above has the office open 48 hours per week and since you should open the doors about a half hour before the first appointment and you may not finish until a half hour after closing, you could easily be staffing for 54 hours per week. It is OK if you can't achieve those ideal hours in the early stages of a practice, but if you are trying to grow the practice, I would be working hard to reach that goal. So I would elect to be open some evenings and Saturdays and be closed on a weekday.
Misconceptions about office hours
Here are some important tips as you consider your office hours:
Being open until 6pm means that your last appointment is around 5pm. That is not an evening. That is when people get off work and they can't make it to your office in time for that appointment. You need to be open until 7pm to really have an evening.
Early morning hours (before 9am) are great and they have some big fans, but they are not a substitute for evenings and Saturdays. I know they may be preferred by the doctor, but we aren't talking about the doctor's wants and needs right now. There is a large segment of the population for which early mornings will not work. Evenings and Saturdays are the times with the greatest demand. If you can offer all those options, that would be great.
I often hear about the number of no shows on Saturday as a major reason for being closed. It is a myth. I have to think this is mostly a rationalization by people who do not want to work Saturdays. I'd rather they just say we don't like to work Saturdays and that would be perfectly understandable. There may be a higher percentage of no shows on Saturday but it can be easily managed and it does not make up for the thousands of dollars that can be generated in four hours. Saturdays are always booked further ahead than any other day in optometric offices. They are often booked weeks ahead. Even a brand new associate can be booked solid on Saturdays. If staff members report to the owner that Saturdays are not very important to patients, I think that staff member does not want to work them.
I realize that changing the hours of operation can be difficult and staff may resist the change. It is understandable and the owners and manager should be sensitive to each individual. The current workings of an office become the norm and staff may not want to give up what they feel are good things about their job. Some employees have important family demands and a change in hours won't work. If you want to expand your office hours, I'd speak to each employee individually and find out what his or her thoughts are. Some may like having a day off during the week and an evening and Saturday may be OK. Some may work those new hours if they got a raise. Some could be grandfather-claused in with the present hours, while new employees are hired only with the new hours. I have noticed that those evening and Saturday hours are no problem for people who are applying for a job.
Evenings or Saturdays by request does not really happen very often. It becomes a special exception and staff members usually don't offer those times. It would mean the doctor and some staff would have to make special arrangements. It is too complicated.
It is not necessary for the office to have a doctor on duty all the times it is open. Doctor's hours are by appointment and people can't walk in and always expect to be examined immediately. But the more convenient doctor's hours you have the better.
By the way, patients who want evening and Saturday appointments are highly desirable for your practice... they are the ones who have jobs!
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.