NEW YORK—In the midst of unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, eyecare practices across the nation had to adjust, adapt and reconfigure their operations in order to meet the changing needs of their patients as well as the financial and other operational challenges the pandemic presented. Still, many practices managed to quickly regain their footing and have made the changes necessary to be successful in this new environment of retail and health care.
Ten of these practices were identified and recognized earlier this year when CooperVision announced its 2021 “Best Practices”  honorees. Now in its sixth year, CooperVision’s Best Practices program highlights optometric practices in the U.S. that advance the profession through innovation, industry leadership, and exceptional patient experience.

In sync with this new environment of “virtual” and safe distancing, the annual roundtable that the Best Practice honorees participate in with Vision Monday and other media, this year’s session was held virtually via Zoom late last month. Following is a very small sampling of the comments that Best Honorees provided during the roundtable discussion with Dr. Michele Andrews, OD, of CooperVision and about a dozen members of the optical media community.

Dr. Michele Andrews, OD
The 2021 Best Practice honorees join a prestigious group of 50 other extraordinary optometry practices that have been profiled and supported through the CooperVision initiative.
Dr. Andrews opened the roundtable noting that “much has changed over the course of the past year,” yet many eyecare practices quickly made very important steps toward ensuring their recovery and ongoing success. This may have included changing up some previous standard procedures, or it may have been because the practices accelerated its timeline for making other more innovative changes to normal business practices.
“One of the things that we have seen consistently across the years with all of the Best Practices honorees is that they shine above all others and rise to [a certain] level. This is because of their ability to adapt and to continue to evolve in how they lead their teams and how they run their practices,” Andrews noted. “As a result, they are able to thrive in any market condition.”
VMAIL reported on the 2021 Best Practices honorees in March, as noted in this story.

In the discussion with the Best Practice honorees, the topics covered included: practice management and all that it entails, advancing the profession of optometry and the role of contact lenses within a practice.
Following are highlights of the doctors’ comments on these topics.

Dr. Adam Ramsey, OD, of Socialite Vision in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., noted that one thing he did that has been successful is the way he segments his and his staff’s time in the office. “I segmented my time and I had to put a value on my time. I could no longer let the patient determine what was valuable to them. … We started doing dispensing appointments, so patients couldn’t come in whenever they wanted. We wanted to make sure that we had the time dedicated to that patient, and because of that we saw second pair sales go up tremendously.” He attributed this to better conversations with the patient and the way in which staff could explain the opportunity for a discount on a second pair. The capture rate at the dispense went up “quite tremendously,” he said, noting this “probably wound not have happened if we didn’t go through the COVID pandemic.”

Dr. Nicolette Scott, OD, of Broad View Eye Center in northeast Ohio: “One of the things that we agonized over for years is evening and weekend hours …. I’ve worked every Saturday up until 2020 and I’ve been in practice, as of next year, 20 years. So when we reopened we realized that evenings and Saturdays were not prime hours any more because everyone was at home.” The practice, in the past, had been open until 7 p.m. almost every night and there were doctors working every Saturday at the practices four locations.
After moving away from the evening and Saturday appointments, Scott said, the practice “realized that this wasn’t an issue. Patients still found time to come in, and we didn’t get the blowback that we thought we would. The staff was overjoyed by not having to work past six o’clock and having some Saturdays off to spend with their families. So we kept [this policy] and it’s been great,” she said. “It’s been a win-win for everybody.”

Dr. Pamela Lowe, OD, of Professional Eye Care Center, Niles, Ill., said her practices believes it has been successful is that the doctors and staff always try to make our patients feel cared for. “There is nothing better than a pandemic to reinforce this for your patients,” she said, noting that this can be accomplished by “just being there for them and being there in a safe way, also.”
She added, “We put air filters in every room, and larger ones in the optical,” she said. “But what really made the patients feel cared for was our pivot to telehealth. This was really key, especially for our seniors who were worried about going out before the vaccination [became available]. It was helpful just having that one-on-one and being able to see them face to face, – even though it was difficult for some of the older patients who weren’t tech savvy.”
In this way, the practice helped patients feel safe in the office, “but we were able to make them feel comfortable and connected when they couldn’t be there. This was a huge part in how we were to get through everything in a safe way,” she said.
Dr. Ann Voss, OD, of Bellaire Family Eye Care, in Bellaire, Texas, also emphasized the importance of a strong patient-focus and the ability to offer a high level of communication to the patients.  “The fundamental thing in the relationship is the trust, this is the trust with the patient and with your staff. … With the huge new adventure that came upon us with COVID, you have to rely on those core foundations and you have to keep moving forward,” she said.
Voss also noted that the practice was about to embark on a significant expansion, but had to “put the brakes on for a short time” until it felt it was the right thing for our practice. “It actually worked out fantastically and we went through the construction phase in the midst of the pandemic. But [in the end] we had more space so people were more spread out. The timing of that ended up working super well,” she said, noting that her practice has grown significantly compared with 2019.

Dr. Alexandra Gelt, OD, of Clearvue Vision Center in Kent, Wash., said her practice tries to do “everything from the patient’s point of view.” One effort in this area has been the addition of signage that lets both staff and patients know when certain exam rooms have been prepped and sanitized, which also helps improve patient flow. “We also have implemented a lot of online ordering, which our patients find convenient. We feel that our Lens Ferry ordering has increased, and our subscriptions have increased.”
Gelt added, “We are finding that patients want more convenience and they want to reduce the number of times they have to come into the office. They finding ordering things online as more convenient.  They also really like the curbside pickup, so we’re thinking that we will offer that again, as well."

Dr. Bryan Heitmeyer, OD, who practices with Dr. Gelt at Clearvue Vision Center, said he believes that during the pandemic eyecare practices have been one of the first places that patients felt comfortable visiting. He said some patients may have been a little resistant about visiting their primary care physician or going into a larger health care setting because of the potential risks.

He added, “What was shocking to me was the number of patients who had delayed their care, in terms of things like having their blood-sugar checked or just decided that they were going to stop taking their medication. .. It’s really important for us to communicate about the things that we do outside of helping patients to see better, such as conditions that we can catch that have a huge impact on their overall health and wellbeing.”

Dr. Melanie Frogozo, OD, of Alamo Eye Care in San Antonio, Tex., who was recently named as a member of AOA’s Cornea and Contact Lens Section, mentioned that she is looking at this opportunity as a way to represent private practice optometry and to be an advocate for this subspecialty and the optometric profession. “For me, this means going out and talking to other private practitioners and understanding where their needs are with respect to contact lenses and cornea care and then try to communicate that to our council," she said.

Dr. Beth Knighton, OD of Bright Eyes Family Vision Care of Tampa, Fla., said one change her practice has made is to limit the number of people in the office. She noted that patients often come into the office with a whole crowd of people that move from room to room.

“It can get very crowded and busy [in the office], so we have limited who can come into the office with the patient. [Now] we have been able to do video chat calls to discuss the exam results with any other family members who want to know what’s going on. This has really helped us limit the number of people in the office, but yet still communicate to the whole family in a way that they are used to from us. This has been really helpful."

Dr. Michael Koditek, OD, of Carbon Valley Eye Care, also indicated that his practice has taken a more pro-active approach to scheduling patient visits and appointments, and the experience has also been positive from an operating perspective.

“Everything is better for it,” he said, “and patients are happier, too.”
He added, “There are expectations in this modern world that patients have for convenience and hours, but at the same time as health care professionals we have to view ourselves that way [when we] make decisions. We shouldn’t think of ourselves as an Amazon or another online retailer, because we are not.”
He noted that he’s recently become involved with advocacy efforts and has found this enlightening and rewarding. “If you want to be helpful to the advocacy group, just let someone know that, even if your time is limited.”
Koditek noted that he finds it surprising that “there are so many people, our lawmakers included, who don’t really understand the scope of what we do. By connecting with them personally, you can really change that.”