CONTINUING EDUCATION, 1 CE Credit – $9.99, 1 Hour, General Knowledge, Level 1, Release date: October 2007, Expiration date: October 31, 2012

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Opticians are Healthcare Providers, Not Merchants

"Opticians are healthcare providers. An Optician's first function is as a highly skilled health and wellness professional, not as a mercantile vendor or clerk."

The opinions and conclusions that follow are based first, on my direct observation and experience, and second, on the first hand testimonials of patients with whom I have had the opportunity of serving. And they are presented optimistically with the hope that owners and managers, whether they are private practitioners or corporate retailers, are inspired and motivated to make appropriate changes to their business model in order to advance the status of Opticianry as a profession while enhancing their own objectives.

"Opticianry is ultimately defined by how well the eyewear makes contact with the patient. Therefore, a conscious, precise, and personalized process of frame selection, lens design, and in-place, hands-on fitting is required."

Main Issues

1) Many optical retailers are well positioned in the marketplace, but few can be called true vision care providers. Most of them employ a business model that works well for marketing general merchandise. But an Optical Dispensary is different. Like a Pharmacy or Health Clinic, an Optical Dispensary is a healthcare facility where prescription eyewear is designed and dispensed. It is not a mercantile sales facility. The comparison can be likened to the difference between a retail outlet where stuff is sold to customers, versus a Health and Wellness Center where prescription eyewear is designed and then fitted on patients.

"Once today’s retail optical paradigm is upgraded to that of serving vision care patients, as opposed to serving retail customers, an Optician becomes a Healthcare Provider, as opposed to a merchant."

A true vision care provider must focus on a) ongoing practical training of staff, b) highest standards of care for patients, c) inclusion of qualified Opticians in upper management positions, d) sensitivity to patients' eye care needs, and e) realistic sales goals.

"When's the last time you saw or heard a retail optical Ad promote the custom fitting of eyewear? Could this be because they don't know how to custom-fit eyewear?"

2) There is an acute need for the staff of many dispensaries to acquire expanded and ongoing training that includes practical, i.e., hands-on-the-patient training, which includes a) the full discovery lifestyle interview; b) customized frame fitting and adjustment techniques; c) familiarity with both the lensometer and a wide range of dispensing hand tools; d) a working knowledge of optical laboratory operations, e.g., layout, surfacing, finishing and final inspection practices; and e) a working knowledge of the Ophthalmic Refraction.

"Many retail optical executives and managers have no experience in Opticianry or Ophthalmic Dispensing. In one organization, only 1 of 43 regional managers is an Optician. In contrast, the CEO of Walgreen Drugs is a Pharmacist."

3) Some corporate executives and managers within the retail optical industry, some with MBA's as their only prior experience, tend to make decisions that adversely impact an acceptable standard of vision care. Some are focused only on their career advancement as managers, while obsessively promoting unrealistic sales goals and requiring interminable amounts of paperwork and reports from subordinates. This in turn interferes with the practice of Opticianry, and the delivery of quality healthcare.

"The conflicted relationship between professional Opticians and retail management can be likened to the current relationship between Medical Practitioners and Insurance Industry HMO's."

Retail managers who are absent Opticianry skills need sufficient training, possibly even in-house certification, in subjects such as the lifestyle interview, optics and lens design, and custom fitting and delivery of prescription eyewear before they assume any policy-making or supervisory roles. Currently, most get on-the-job training only, and their actions and decisions reflect their inexperience to the detriment of acceptable service. Again, providing professional vision care, i.e., designing, measuring, and custom-fitting prescription eyewear on patients requires much more technical expertise and people skills than what is required to service mercantile customers.

"The most perfect prescription can be compromised if the eyewear does not provide comfort and long-term wear-ability."

Example: Newly purchased eyewear is routinely and casually handed over to patients without any custom fitting of the frame directly on the patient. (The number one patient complaint: "Nobody adjusted my glasses. They just handed them to me.")

"For many consumers, the personalized fitting of eyewear by a skilled, hands-on Optician is an unfamiliar experience."

Example: Experienced Opticians are required by inexperienced managers to reduce or even bypass the time necessary to conduct life-style interviews, design appropriate lenses, and custom-fit prescription eyewear directly on the patient.

"Just as a Dentist cannot practice Dentistry without touching a patient, an Optician cannot practice Opticianry without direct contact with a patient. Some of today's Dispensers just hand over patients’ prescription glasses."

Again, fitting a vision appliance on a patient involves a different level of technical knowledge and people skills. Dispensing prescription eyewear includes many elements of craftsmanship, artistry, and patient-dispenser interaction along with significant technical skill and finesse in their application. All of these are key to the success (satisfied, happy patients who refer others) and profitability (much reduced returns, remakes and refunds) of any Vision Healthcare Facility.

Here is an actual Optical Retailer's list of "essential" expectations as presented to prospective staff members.

  • Drive profitable store sales by fostering a retail selling culture by practicing and role-playing effective retail sales skills.

  • Develop professional business relationship with other staff.

  • Fill ophthalmic eyeglass prescriptions and fit and adapt lenses and frames, utilizing optical prescription.

Notice that retail sales and retail skills rank #1 ahead of professional skills at #3 in the above retail model. In contrast, the 'Premier' model ranks Professional Skills as #1. And as a result, higher profits occur due to fewer returns, remakes and refunds, and more patient referrals are realized because of greater patient satisfaction.

Some Optical retailers need to make significant changes if they hope to acquire the Vision Healthcare Provider title. Their business models fall short due to current deficiencies in practical training and depth of dispensing experience. An investment of resources needs to be made where it really matters ... people!

For example, in-house training manuals are inadequate since they lack the practical aspects of hands-on-the-patient skills. The reliance on manual-only training is like trying to teach an aspiring surgeon with only a manual as a reference in the absence of a patient.

"Due to their market share, the largest optical retailers are in a unique position to lead the industry in the direction of re-humanizing the delivery of eyewear to the public."

I urge optical retailers to invest more in the effective training of their Opticians and to support the certification and licensing of Opticians by providing or funding Opticianry training schools, and by expanding their wage scale in order to retain well-trained Opticians as professional Healthcare Providers.

"Of the over 67,000 Opticians designing, manufacturing and dispensing eyewear - less than half have any formal certification or licensure." U.S. Department of Labor

Some retailers have a long history of financially supporting all kinds of community events and philanthropic gifts. Investment of capital in the training and advancement of their Opticians is a gift that keeps on giving.

Hari S. Bird

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