Private practice optometry has always had challenges, ever since the earliest days of our professional development. I’ve lived through many of them in the past 40 years and revisiting those historical challenges is useful as we try to put our current ones in perspective. Those past challenges bring us some comfort as we realize that we generally emerged successfully. But the challenges seem different now. They seem to come faster now. The digital age has spawned a new wave of entrepreneurs who are actively seeking to disrupt traditional industries and professions.
Disruption is the key word. Amazon disrupted the book-selling business many years ago and it continues to disrupt all forms of retail and many other industries. Uber disrupted the taxi and limousine industry. Apple, Google, Facebook and other tech companies are disrupting businesses every day and small entrepreneurs want to emulate them and find the next big thing. Disruptive innovation can be good or bad, depending on your personal relationship to the industry affected. As optometrists, we may not like the idea of online vision tests, but we happily order an Uber to get around town and we might have our groceries delivered to our door from Amazon Fresh. We love to embrace innovation that helps our practices, such as confirming patient appointments via text message or hiring new employees by placing an ad online.
Predicting the future is never easy, but we can draw upon some current facts that may help us understand where we are headed. It is just my opinion, but I think optometry will be viable and our services will be in great demand far into the future. Our methods of practice will look very different than they do today, but health care as an industry is growing very fast and eye care within that industry is projected to have great demand in the future. Our knowledge and skills in eye and vision care will be needed. The public currently has unmet visual needs and as people live longer, the human eye needs more professional care and treatment.
It may feel uncomfortable to have our old methods challenged, but we will develop new methods. From a business standpoint, we may see some profit centers decline, but we will develop new ones. Fees and prices may fall, but we will gain efficiencies that allow us to reduce our costs. I believe we will have ample time to adapt to the changes that occur around us, because the nature of our business is highly technical and very service oriented. We actually have seen the disruptive challenges in our industry occur fairly slowly. I first wrote about the concept of online optical sales in 1999 and the percentage of Rx glasses purchased through that channel today is still fairly low.
Embrace change or fight it
The slower pace of change is good, but that does not mean we should be complacent. Most optometric practices are adapting to new technology now and we should all continue this effort. But it requires judgment to select the right concepts to embrace. We will make mistakes in the process. Not all new things are good. There must be a million apps for smartphones that are not very useful. The market will decide what is worthy, just as it always has. If there is a better way to sell products or to deliver services, we will evaluate it. We will embrace some concepts and reject others.
However, some changes need to be fought for reasons that are not self-serving. Optometry has a responsibility to protect the eyesight of the public and regulations exist for good reason. We may be criticized by the business world when we use the legislative process to intervene against an effort to make eye and vision care faster, cheaper or more automated, but the business world does not understand eye care like we do. It is more important than ever that optometrists support the AOA and other organizations that work with legislators and public health policy makers.
Proactive steps to take
Here are some ideas on how to help your practice adapt to disruptive innovation:
• Diversify your practice. Become educated and introduce new specialties, such as low vision care, myopia control, specialized contact lens fitting, dry eye therapy, nutrition in eye care, sports vision, vision therapy and many others. We need to develop new profit centers in the practice as old ones decline.
• Continue to build your expertise in medical eye care. Most ODs are doing this, but continue to expand your medical services, take more courses in this field and invest in advanced instrumentation that enhances your capabilities.
• Be aware that changes will occur to the refractive services and optical product sales that we have built our practices on. Don’t give up on optical; make your offering even stronger.
• Stay current with technology in all areas of your practice. We must personally understand all the ways that consumers use technology in order to compete with it and to provide it ourselves. Plus, you need your patients to perceive that your practice is technically advanced.
• Understand the millennial generation. Don’t shrug them off because they think differently, accept them and try to think like them.
• Improve the traditional aspects of doing business, like customer service. Make doing business with your practice faster and easier for the patient.
• As an independent practice owner, you need more expertise and resources. Join an optometric alliance group that offers consulting services to level the playing field against your larger corporate competitors.
• Support the AOA and other professional organizations that work with our legislative and legal systems.