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The last of my top ten misconceptions in practice management occurs this week.
It has been a fun ten weeks of challenging some of the most commonly accepted
and trendy management strategies in eye care. This week we'll tackle what seems
to be a very sensitive subject: fee increases.
I don't think there is any misconception that fee increases help the
profitability of a practice, but I find many eye care practitioners to be very
shy about the amount that they can increase in a year's time as well as the
frequency of increases. Most doctors feel that 10% is a significant increase and
they are afraid to go more than that. That may well be true if the fee is at the
right level in the first place, but so many practices charge such low fees for
the level of service they deliver that a simple percentage that sounds
reasonable is not an optimum approach. These practices are behind the times, but
they don't realize it. A $6 increase for a comprehensive eye exam, for example,
is just not enough to bring a practice that undervalues its services up to
Why the fear?
My colleague Dr. Jerry Hayes tells an amusing story that always helps me put fee
increases in perspective. He was presenting a lecture and was discussing the
importance of setting fees properly when a doctor in the audience voiced concern
over losing patients if he were to raise his fees. He cited the competition
among the eye care professionals in town. Jerry asked the doctor if there were
any doctors in the area that charged more than he did. The doc replied that yes,
indeed, there were some practitioners who charged a higher fee. Jerry's
response: "Then why don't you have all their patients?"
The answer is because there are many factors other than price that enter into a
patient's selection of an eye care provider. In many cases, the fee is actually
low on the list of reasons to choose a doctor. I've seen many examples of
patients choosing an eye doctor because the fee was high! There are lots of
people who want the best in eye care... the best service, the best technology, the
best skill, the best contact lenses and the best glasses. The public has very
few ways to judge eye care services and products because they are complex and
technical, so people often use the fee to help them judge. In fact, the
practices described in the story above that charge the highest fees are often
the largest and most successful practices in the area.
What part of the market are you in?
There are different segments of the eye care market and while there is one
segment of consumers that is very price conscious, there are other segments that
are not price sensitive at all.
I find many eye care professionals who charge fairly low fees do so with the
best of intentions. They are honestly trying to be good businessmen and women
and they have the right idea, but have taken it to extreme. These practice
owners understand the importance of giving the customer what he wants, but they
make the mistake of trying to satisfy all of the market demands at the same
time. These practitioners want to build the most successful practice ever by
achieving something that has never been done before. They want to deliver
excellent quality eye care with great customer service and do it all at a low
The truth is you simply can't do it all. Many businesses of all kinds have
tried, but it just doesn't work. Successful practices must decide if they want
to be a low price leader or if they want to provide outstanding quality. Which
one do you think is a better strategy for an independent private practice? It's
really a pretty easy question when one looks at the other companies involved in
providing low cost eye care. I would want to focus on the opposite end of the
spectrum rather than compete with them.
Even more common than choosing the wrong market strategy is choosing no strategy
at all. Many eye care practitioners simply never think about strategy and that
leads them to occupy the large mass in the middle. This is the 80% of all
practices that are not at the high end of quality and fees and not at the low
end of price, but are somewhere in between. This is not a good place to be
because there is no competitive advantage there.
While it makes perfect sense to pick the high quality-high fee philosophy, I
always hear from doctors who say their local economy won't support that kind of
practice. Of course, fee levels are relative to the local market, but I have
found that there is demand for the highest quality and service in every market
and people will happily pay for it. It may take some experimentation to find the
highest level that will be successful in any market, but I would not presume to
guess at it or give up without trying.
I believe that high fee practices must provide good value. Consumers feel like
they receive a good value when they get a fair return for what they pay. A good
value is not defined as low price. Many people stay at a Ritz-Carlton hotel or
buy a Lexus automobile and feel they got a great value. We offer good value in
eye care by providing truly excellent service, advanced technology and superior
No discussion of fees would be complete without acknowledging that raising fees
has virtually no effect in a practice that is dominated by vision plans. That is
true to a point, but even these vision plan practices have some component of
private pay patients. And let's also remember that patients with vision plans
can and will purchase some non-covered services and products. Additionally, we
all see cases that can and should be billed to major medical plans. So I don't
accept the notion that raising fees will have no effect. Besides, if raising
fees would really make no difference due to extensive vision plan participation,
then why not go ahead and raise them? The vision plans don't care what you
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.