By Edward Dean Butler
Sept. 8, 2021
Growing your medical eyecare services while neglecting to grow your optical services is a mistake that could cost you patients and great profitability. Yet there is a troubling trend taking shape in which medical eyecare is being promoted as the sole focus of the future of optometry.
A New Way to Define “Optometrist”
The American Optometric Association (AOA) just updated its “optometrist” definition. The updated definition blows my mind. It does not mention eyeglasses or contact lenses.
If you ask members of the public what an optometrist does, the vast majority will say optometrists are the doctors you go to for new eyeglasses or contact lenses, and that the process includes updating your prescription. Almost no member of the public will talk about “comprehensive eye exams” or anything like that. The public believes optometrists will do a good job of catching eye problems, but the public will tell you the primary function is selling you the right glasses or contact lenses.
The new AOA definition abandons the primary service provided by optometrists — crazy, if you ask me –and downright misguided. As someone who is very pro-optometry, and who has employed or leased to thousands of optometrists in more than 30 nations as the founder of LensCrafters, I want the public to believe the optometrists in my optical stores are the best professionals to go to when they need to update their glasses or contact lenses — and that the optometrists in my optical stores are also good at spotting eye problems — and that we have great products.
Fulfill a Primary Patient Need
For optometry to move away from an emphasis on eyeglasses and contact lenses is a serious mistake. In general, optometrists who market themselves as the best place to go for glasses and contact lenses are going to run circles around those who market medical optometry. It goes without saying that consumers think primarily about what they are going to wear to see well and look great, not about medical eyecare.
And moving further in the medical optometry direction is going to be counterproductive in that more people will put off visiting an optometrist.
I am not suggesting medical eyecare is not important. What I am suggesting is that marketing medical eyecare is not as good a practice-builder as marketing looking great and seeing well.
Certainly there is room for some optometrists to develop a strong business based on medical optometry, but this will require several years of patience along with good marketing. I do not believe this will work for the majority of optometrists.
A Risky New Emphasis for Optometry
As you can tell by now, I fear for the direction in which the AOA is headed. The AOA direction risks the demise of optometry as we know it today. The majority of consumers already think eye exams are significantly too expensive. As a result, many consumers will turn to opportunities to bypass optometry. This is already being done in over 30 states via remote eye exams provided by MDs, who are not subject to optometry board regulations and guidelines.
And, worse yet for traditional optometry, we are on the cusp of smartphone apps that will give you an accurate Rx from scratch — not just tell you if your current Rx is still OK. What will happen when consumers can obtain an Rx via smartphone? You might ask, “Who will sign the Rx?” The fact is, someone will — perhaps an MD or perhaps an out of state or (more challenging for traditional optometry) an offshore optometrist or MD. There is no way we can rely on state legislatures to pass legislation prohibiting filling of such Rxs. And if a legislature does try, consumers will move increasingly to buying online.
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Shore Up the Basics of Why Patients Come to “See” You
My personal suggestion is to go back to what optometry was a few decades ago — getting people into great-looking eyeglasses (or contact lenses). Make this the emphasis of your practice. And be sure you have great sales staff — staff that are good at selling, and good at creating enthusiastically satisfied customers.
A really good sales manager will double your business. I have seen it time and again. In my optical businesses I greatly prefer to hire people with good sales experience and then teach them dispensing. It is a truism that you can teach optics to a good sales person, but you cannot teach selling to most traditional dispensers.
With the right attention given to your refraction and optical services you can give a huge patient satisfaction and profitability boost to a practice–even one with growing medical eyecare services.
Edward Dean Butler was a marketing executive at Procter & Gamble for 14 years before helping a colleague found what is now Vision Works. He then founded LensCrafters, with the famous “glasses in about an hour” slogan. After five years at LensCrafters Mr. Butler left to found Vision Express in the UK and Australia. Today he serves on several Boards of Directors, including Neurolenses in the USA and Eyoto (ophthalmic instruments) in the UK. To contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org