Staff Management

Top Things Associate ODs Need From Practice Owners

By Justin L. Manning, OD, MPH, FAAO

June 24, 2020

Associate optometrists need more than their optometric expertise to succeed; they need the right guidance from practice owners. Here are the top things you can do to ensure your associate ODs perform well for your patients and business.

Now the executive vice-president for professional strategies at Healthy Eyes Advantage, I worked for years as an associate OD myself. I have had a lot first-hand experience on what works and what doesn’t in facilitating superior associate OD job performance.

First, Be Careful Who You Hire
There is nothing more important, especially between owner and associate than clear, open communication. Bringing on an associate needs to be handled with even more care than hiring a support-staff employee. You need to be sure that the associate’s approach to eyecare and patient care aligns with the rest of the practice.

I spoke with a handful of optometry owners and young optometry associates as background research for this article. One of the key things an owner I talked to mentioned was the importance of the associate being aligned with the values of the practice. Examples of this alignment include agreement on devoting the same amount of time for Medicaid patients as other patients and the extent to which the practice should embrace medical eyecare. These certainly are only a few of many items associate and owner ODs need to align on.

Help the Associate Understand Your Practice, Including Its History
Every owner has a reason they decided to go into practice ownership and every practice should have a vision. It is important for an owner to realize that no associate will ever feel the same commitment or emotional connection to the practice as the owner. That doesn’t mean the owner can’t develop a mentality of ownership in the associate. Before the associate gets started seeing patients, they need to hear the story of the practice and understand and align with the vision. As Simon Sinek refers to it, start (and align) with the “why.”

The associate needs to see how their role, which in most cases at the start is to just see patients, contributes to the greater vision. According to an article in Forbes, individuals who have a purpose to their work (something greater than themselves, contributing to a greater vision) are four times more likely to be engaged at work, have a higher level of career satisfaction, earn more and be more content. This applies to the work of an associate and how it connects to the greater vision of the practice.

Set Expectations About Work Schedule & Patient Volume
Clear expectations are crucial for any work environment, especially between owner and associate. When it comes to an associate, it is important to be clear on: hours/ days worked, level of responsibility for bringing new patients into the practice, the owner’s philosophy on medical/vision care and patient care in general, how many patients per hour, what types of patients to see and opportunities and timeline for becoming a practice partner. This certainly is not an exhaustive list.

Let Associate Know They Also Are a Practice Leader to Support Staff
I have found that whether an associate likes it or not, the doctor title will automatically come with some level of leadership, even on the associate’s side. Even if the primary expectation is to see a full schedule of patients, it is important for the associate to know the ins and outs of the office flow, team responsibilities and team dynamics.

Therefore, the associate will need to have an effective understanding of office flow and support-staff expectations to be able to make time-sensitive decisions, especially if the owner isn’t present in the office. Staff will inherently look to the doctor, even if it’s the associate.

Let Them Know They Will Have to Accommodate Owner’s Needs
The associate does not take on the same level of business responsibilities and risk the owner does, so the associate must understand flexibility in scheduling is necessary, especially for weekend and/or late hours.

The last practice I was in had Saturday morning hours, every other week. I was fortunate that I only had to work one of the two Saturdays as the owner had such a loyal patient following that it was better for the practice to split the time. It gave the owner an extra weekend off while allowing me weekend time off as well.

While I recognize this scenario doesn’t apply to all OD owners, especially those who have full Saturday and/or Sunday hours, one associate OD I talked to mentioned that even if they could have one Saturday off a month, it would allow them more freedom, and therefore, be more satisfied in their role. Sticking with the theme of clear communication, having the ability to discuss issues like weekend hours candidly is important. The same applies to time off, especially beyond professional development.

Welcome Associate’s Ideas for Practice Growth
We all can’t do everything. If an associate can bring additional revenue streams, including niche areas of optometry, into the practice, giving the associate the freedom to build those services, improve the practice flow and market those services, can have significant growth impacts on the practice. Not to mention, the associate is likely to feel more connected to the vision and feel more ownership in the practice’s success.

The worst words an owner/leader can say is “well, we’ve just always done it that way and that’s what we’ll continue to do.” An owner should always be open to hearing ideas that stretch and challenge them if they have long-term growth implications for the practice.

Education Resource
I highly recommend all owners and associates read the book Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler. Developing the skills and tools to have crucial, challenging conversations openly and candidly will prevent issues from arising between the associate, owner and support staff.

Justin L. Manning, OD, MPH, FAAO, is executive vice-president for professional strategies at Healthy Eyes Advantage. To contact him: JManningOD@hea2020.com

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