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DISPENSING OPTICIAN

We really can't begin to talk about free-form lenses without a refresher discussion on the various ways that digital processing is utilized in lens manufacturing.

Simply describing a lens product as a digital lens is not enough information. All free-form lenses are digital lenses, but not all digital lenses are free-form lenses. In the world of lens production, digital can be defined as either:

The process used to create a glass mold for any lens design. If the lens design or part of the lens design is created using a digitally produced glass mold with all or part of the lens design on the front surface, the lens can be rightfully called a digital lens. Whether it is a flat-top bifocal or a progressive design, if the mold is digitally created, the lens is a digital lens. Like a digitally enhanced movie or recording, it does not change or improve the original; it allows the original to be more accurately reproduced.

The process used to create a free-form lens design on the back surface of a semi-finished lens blank. A digital or free-form generator is a CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) milling machine that produces a lens design on the back surface of a lens blank using a proprietary point file. Rather than cutting the back surface in only 2 directions (side-to-side or up-and-down) it also adds dimension with a third direction (in-and-out) using a diamond stylus instead of the old-style diamond cutting wheel. This first step provides the foundation for a free-form lens design.

Digital does not mean free-form. A digital lens can be one that is produced from a digitally produced lens mold or one that combines lens design and Rx power on the back side of a semi-finished lens blank.

So, if we use digital to describe a process for creating a lens mold or creating a surface, what does free-form mean?

Free-form is how we describe the ability to combine a lens design with a spectacle prescription creating a unique lens surface for each patient and each eye.

Simply stated, a free-form lens is not constrained by a specific design molded into the front surface of a lens, but is the combination of design and prescription for optimal performance.

Free-form lenses may or may not require POW (Position of Wear) measurements. However, including those measurements greatly enhances the precision of the unique surfaces and the patient's wearing experience.

Free-form lenses are compensated lenses. The power as read through a focimeter will not necessarily match the written prescription the patient received from his or her prescriber. The lenses are designed using default parameters for BVD (Back Vertex Distance), Pantoscopic Angle, and Wrap Angle. Supplying those three measurements when ordering the lenses greatly increases the accuracy and optimization of the free-form lens design.

The most recent innovation in free-form design is the Camber technology developed by IOT (Indizen Optical Technologies). This unique lens surface is designed to reduce unwanted astigmatic error by creating a variable front base curve. You can investigate this new technology at www.camberlens.com. Camber technology is only available through independent wholesale laboratories, so check with your independent lab for availability.

Evaluating free-form technology

Educate yourself and your staff. Every major lens manufacturer and nearly every wholesale lab have free-form lens designs in their product lines. Ask for information from both manufacturer's reps and wholesale lab reps and keep an open mind when evaluating the information. You must look past the marketing and find the relevant information. If you don't understand what you're reading, never be afraid to call a rep and ask for a more detailed explanation.

Try as many lens designs as possible and practical. Most manufacturers and labs have vouchers available for this purpose. Free-form designs are not limited to progressive lenses; there are single vision options as well. If you are an emmetrope, choose other staff members to evaluate the designs for you. Or ask your favorite patients to do the same thing. Feedback from these wearer trials are an invaluable source of real world experience.

Choose the lens designs that will work for you, your practice, and your patients. Keep in mind that the best products may not all be in the same family of products. They may be available through a number of sources or limited to a single source. There are a number of factors that should be a part of that selection process including:

  • Design properties

  • Material availability

  • Lab accessibility

  • Price

  • Competition

  • Marketing free-form technology

There is a reason for including competition in your lens evaluation process. If you choose to offer the same products that are available from your competition, you have eliminated a major part of your marketing strategy. Every successful practice must have its own niche, from the frames you carry to the lenses you offer.

You don't need a consultant to tell you that if your practice is identical to the one down the street, patients will shop for price and begin that race to the bottom. What can you do differently?

Digital Measuring Devices are a very visible differentiation. Nearly every lens manufacturer and many independent labs have digital measuring devices. They vary in price from just under $1000 to well over $10,000. Most offer some kind of incentive to lower or rebate the initial expense. Some require a commitment to monthly service/update contracts, some do not. Some are free-standing and some are desktop units. Many have a tablet/iPad option as well. The decision to use this technology is a big one and should always be investigated thoroughly for cost/benefit/ease-of-use. The reality is that patients will expect the high price of free-form lenses to be accompanied by a high level of technology in the fitting process.

You and your staff need to become comfortable with higher prices. This is probably the most difficult hurdle to cross. Often, eye care professionals are more concerned with their patient's bank account than the patients are themselves. As the expert at the table, your main concern is providing the proper solutions to your patient's visual needs and wants. Why are you wearing free-form lenses? Why wouldn't you want everyone to enjoy the same benefits? Be prepared to tell that story.

Offer your services as a speaker to local organizations, business, and professional associations. Ensure that your office is the "go to" practice for the most up-to-date technology and professional advice.

Regular communication with your current patient database. A yearly or bi-yearly reminder card or email is insufficient. The obligatory sunglass sale in early summer or spring is insufficient. Regular communication via different modalities, i.e. email, text, snail mail, and Facebook will grab your patient's attention. If you have a website, one that is unique and not the cookie-cutter sites that are the "benefit" of a buying group or professional association, make sure that it is updated regularly to highlight the most current lens technologies. Yelp yourself by allowing patients to comment on their experiences in your office. Ask them to talk about their new free-form lenses, the how and why they selected those products.

Marketing free-form lens designs is not difficult when you become conversant in the technology, understand how it benefits your patients, and stop worrying about the money. The positive feedback you receive from your patients is worth it!

Judy Canty
ABO/NCLE

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