By Ian G. Whipple, OD
June 17, 2020
The COVID-19 practice shutdowns, which typically lasted at least two months, have taken a significant toll. In our practice, we have developed a few key strategies to recoup some of those lost revenues. Here is the approach we are taking.
Gauging the Economic Impact of the Shutdown & New Expenses
On March 16, our office stopped all routine eyecare. While we consider ourselves an essential business, we followed the Centers for Disease Control recommendation to discontinue routine care. Running a business on emergency eyecare alone simply didn’t cover the fixed costs of rent, utilities and payroll. We have carefully resumed routine eyecare as of May 4, 2020, but we are operating at limited capacity. We are restricting the number of visitors in our office to maintain proper social distancing. We also provide full personal protective equipment for our staff members and every patient, or any other person, who enters our office. This PPE has cost us in excess of $10,000.
During the seven weeks that our office was closed, gross dollars collected was down 52 percent. Additionally, our office was down 60 percent in April compared to last year.
I expect that the loss of revenue would have been much greater had I not retained my staff throughout this crisis. Our staff was tasked with proactively reaching out to patients to sell contact lenses and other accessory items. Our staff did an amazing job and was able to “earn their wages” for most of the early days of the shutdown. However, as time passed, these revenue sources also dried up.
Investing in Staff Training for Long-Term Positive ROI
We used some of the downtime to train our opticians and prepare them to take the AOA Paraoptometric Certification (CPO) tests. They spent about 40 hours each studying and preparing together. The next available exam test date is August 1, so we plan to conduct a refresher session for the opticians later this summer. I expect this investment in staff training to return a significant return on investment. Already my opticians are using their training and new knowledge to make stronger recommendations to our patients for ophthalmic products.
I was personally involved with leading some of the group training sessions. It was a good refresher for me, and I love spending time with my staff. All of these training sessions were completed via Zoom meetings.
Creation of a Virtual Storefront
An idea we have floated around for several years is the creation of a small boutique virtual storefront where we could sell sunglasses, vitamins, over-the-counter eye drops and other products. One of our more computer-savvy employees used Squarespace to create a fantastic little site. We are in the process of completing it, and ultimately, I’d like to make it available to offer best sellers and other easy-sale items to our patients.
HERE is the virtual storefront site we are in the process of perfecting.
The Squarespace site took about 20 hours of one staff member’s wages to create. There are minimal costs of hosting and maintaining the virtual storefront. Along with hopefully generating sales, it offers visitors to our practice web site additional proof that we embrace technology, and are making every effort to stay relevant in an omni-channel digital world.
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One out-of-the-box possibility with the new online storefront would be to create an invite-only section of the store where we could offer low-cost glasses options. The idea being that a patient who makes it clear to an optician that they are planning to buy their eyewear online would be given access to this portion of the store along with their glasses prescription and a quote for what our low-cost glasses would cost.
This section of the storefront would offer competitively priced basic frames and lenses that a patient could select knowing that they’re getting an “online” price and quality, but that they’re actually buying local at the same time. My biggest concerns are that this approach may cannibalize some sales, but if it were used as a true save-the-sale option it may generate some revenue.
Increased Focus on Myopia Management
It has long been a goal of mine to have my associate doctor join me in actively fitting corneal refractive therapy lenses or gentle vision shaping system (GVSS) lenses. During the downtime she fit three staff members in GVSS lenses, and I expect this experience will increase confidence of staff and the associate doctor as we resume our normal care.
Telemedicine as Efficient Triage Facilitator
The pandemic has also forced us to reconsider telemedicine. I have never been opposed to telemedicine options as long as it is used in an appropriate way (it doesn’t feel right to attempt a comprehensive eye exam via telemedicine at this time – technology will need to improve to a slit-lamp quality video and some way of imaging the retina remotely before I’ll even consider it safe.)
We have embraced telemedicine as a triage method. Our patients seem to really appreciate that they can talk to a doctor remotely when they have a red eye. We have been able to determine via telemedicine screenings if a patient’s concerns warrant an in-person visit or not.
Telemedicine is here to stay–in one way or another–in our office. It’s too early to tell for sure on the virtual storefront, but I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be something we’d keep.