First the good news: Partnerships between ophthalmologists and optometrists are thriving, with many practices combining to offer services under the same roof. Many ophthalmology practices are expanding into full-fledged eye care centers, with an optical shop and even in-office labs for making glasses.
But a word of caution: The market for optometric care and eyewear is getting more competitive. Disruptive players continue to gain a strong foothold. You don’t have to look far. Popular retail chains such as CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart now offer eye exams, glasses, and contact lenses to consumers.
Go to Google and search “buy glasses online.” You’ll find more competitors: eyebuydirect.com, warbyparker.com, visionworks.com, and others. Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, may at some point enter the eye care market, possibly by purchasing an established online eyewear retailer. If so, they will bring to the market a powerful competitive advantage—faster speed for online delivery1.
How to compete
How can independent ophthalmic practices in such a fiercely competitive retail environment? Below are some important strategies.
Educate before you sell
As an independent ophthalmic practice, you have a distinct competitive advantage. The people who you serve are both patient and customer. In your role as patient educator, you can outshine any retail chain or dotcom.
Teach your patients that purchasing eyeglasses is an investment on their health. Emphasize that you are 100% dedicated to eye care. With so many options for lenses and frames, your practice can guide them to the best choice based on their prescription, lifestyle, and appearance. Explain the risk of buying a frame online that they haven’t tried on or had measured by an experienced optician, especially with complex prescriptions.
Display a variety of frames—virtuallyWhen shopping online, customers have thousands of options available at their fingertips. Your optical shop can’t carry so much stock. How can you overcome this competitive disadvantage?
The answer: a comprehensive optical management solution that integrates with your EHR. Look for a solution that offers a user-friendly visual display of all frames to which your practice has access through its suppliers—not just the ones on display in your shop. Have a computer monitor ready to show this display to customers, so you can point out all their options in different colors, sizes, and styles.
Go all in with patient engagement
Retail chains and online optical shops are attractive to consumers because they offer convenience. To compete, consider ways to maximize the convenience you offer to patients. Effective patient engagement technology is essential.
Find a platform that makes it easy for patients to:
• Set up appointments for eye exams online—and cancel, if necessary, within an established timeframe
• Communicate with your practice the way they want— text, email, or phone.
• View their eye glass prescriptions anytime via a patient portal
• Make payments from their smartphone or computer
This platform should also enable you to send out automated appointment reminders and messages. It should integrate fully with your EHR.
Build your identity as a locally-based, community providerIt’s a common saying: People do business with people they know and like. Within this truth, lies an important key to competing in today’s marketplace: Build your practice’s identity as a locally-operated business within your community. This is something no Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, or online optical retailer can readily do.
Community-based marketing is not just relevant for smaller, locally-owned ophthalmic practices. Enterprise-level practices with multiple locations, which may be owned or partially owned by a private equity firm, can compete this way too, with each office marketing to its surrounding area. From the patient’s perspective, the locally-operated office is synonymous with the practice.
To start, set up a business page on Facebook or other social media platform. Remember that people come to Facebook mostly to interact with family and friends, so use the platform accordingly. Introduce members of your staff. Post photos, not only of your practice or services, but of easily recognized landmarks in your area. The underlying message: We are a team of eye care professionals who are part of this community.
Another important community-based marketing strategy: Get involved with local charitable and service organizations and initiatives to promote community wellbeing. As one example, Loden Vision Centers, a comprehensive eye care practice based in Nashville, partnered with a local soccer club to launch a program called Kickstart to Reading, which supports literacy in the area’s public schools.
Provide a five-star retail experienceCompetition makes us sharper and better. The fiercely competitive marketplace is an incentive to make sure you deliver a great customer experience to anyone who enters your optical shop. Encourage staff members to show personal interest in helping the patient find frames that fit their face shape and skin tone.
Your EHR may offer a place to record personal notes about the patient that won’t appear in clinical documentation. If so, enter information about the patient that comes up in casual conversation; their family, hobbies, or favorite vacation spot, for example. Have staff refer to these notes when the patient comes back for their next visit, so they can help the patient feel remembered and appreciated.
Remember, health IT is not just about documenting clinical care or automating practice management. It’s also about giving you tools to develop stronger relationships with patients—the types of individual connections that retail chains and dotcoms can’t offer.