You’ve put time, effort, and money into becoming an optometrist. Whether you’re fresh out of school or an established optometrist, you’ll want to provide your patients with full-scope, quality care. Sometimes, it can take years to grow an established patient base. Whether you’re starting your own practice, or helping to establish a new optometry department within a local hospital or health center, this article will provide some ideas on how to market your optometry practice locally.
Volunteer at a local health fair
Many hospitals will host annual or semiannual health fairs, offering discounted or free health care screenings and services to the public. Networking with a local hospital administration can be a great way to get your foot in the door. Having an optometrist present at local health fairs helps promote our profession. It will also help to educate patients and other providers on optometry’s role in delivering comprehensive health care—your practice included.
Being present at a health fair can take place in a variety of ways. You could simply set up a table/booth and focus on patient education—whether you're discussing diabetes and the eye, smoking and the eye, astigmatism, cataracts, glaucoma, etc. Having these simple conversations with patients helps establish rapport and emphasizes the importance of having a routine eye exam. Be sure to bring extra business cards and informational pamphlets/flyers to promote your practice.
Many patients may assume that you do not accept their health/vision insurance plan or that your cheapest glasses are out of their budget. Having basic discussions regarding the insurance plans you accept, exam fees, and optical price ranges can provide clarity and go a long way in marketing your practice.
Your presence at a health fair could also take on the form of a “vision screening.” In the past, our office has brought our lensometer and autorefractor down and simply checked the patient’s visual acuity, lensometry, and autorefraction. The information gathered from these basic tests can provide ample material for conversation. We’ve also done non-contact tonometry and undilated 20D of the posterior pole as a “glaucoma screening” for patients. Just remember, when providing any type of screening service, it’s important to emphasize that you’re not conducting a comprehensive eye exam.
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Host a school vision day
Hosting an event at a school can be a great way to bypass all of the logistical barriers some kids face and give them access to the eyecare they need, while also promoting your optometry practice.
Most K-12 schools will have some type of protocol for vision screenings already in place. In my experience, the school nurse(s) will typically conduct a basic screening that MAY include visual acuity and an autorefractor—with predetermined pass/fail criteria. After speaking with various school nurses, especially those in rural settings, you’ll be surprised to find that a large portion of kids who fail their screenings never make it in to have a comprehensive eye exam—year after year. Despite an eye exam and glasses being covered under most kids’ health care plans, other life/logistical challenges can be present and often prevent them from getting into your exam chair.
Networking with school nurses can be a great way to engage in community outreach. In our area, our office has networked with county school nurses and coordinated “vision days” where all of the students who’ve failed their vision screening come and see one of our ODs. At these vision days, we perform refractions with a portable phoropter/tripod stand and conduct undilated/dilated 20D posterior pole assessments. The nurses have already sent home an authorization form beforehand, explaining what we’re doing and that eye drops may be necessary. Kids at risk for amblyopia are given cycloplegic refractions and are instructed to follow up with their current eye care provider or at our office. Summary letters are sent home to the parents afterward.
While a “Vision Day” event may initially take on the form of “pro bono” work, building public awareness within the community goes a long way in promoting your name and your practice. Most optometry state boards prohibit the direct “solicitation” of patients through vision screenings and other outreach endeavors. Don’t let this perceived red tape prevent you from getting involved. In some cases, YOU may be the only optometrist in their area or the only office that accepts their insurance plan. Explain to parents and school nurses that follow-up with an eye doctor may be necessary in some cases after the vision day (e.g., monitoring refractive amblyopia). Reminding families that they’re welcome to go to any optometry office they choose is a good way to avoid “soliciting” them as patients into your office.
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Give a presentation
Getting out into the community and giving a presentation on anything eye-related can be another great way to spread awareness about your practice and the optometric profession. Whether it’s the local Lions Club, senior center, library, nursing home, or other health care setting, people will be interested in learning more about the eye and what we do as eyecare providers.
Given the significant rise we’ve seen in type 2 diabetes, discussing ways our eyes can be affected by metabolic disease makes for a great topic. Regardless of where you live, there are likely local diabetic educators who host routine diabetic focus groups. Dropping in periodically to discuss diabetes and the threat of blindness can be a great opportunity for you.
Although slightly more time-consuming, getting involved with your local optometric society can also offer opportunities for networking and public speaking. Doing so can promote referrals and is especially important if your practice offers a subspecialty like low vision, contact lens, or vision therapy.
Stopping by your local hospital to attend a medical staff meeting is another great way to gain exposure and explain your role in today’s health care system. It’s important to convey why having access to eyecare services provides a great benefit to patients and the community. You can choose one area of optometry to focus on (e.g., ocular emergencies) and market your office’s availability to see these patients. It is not uncommon for emergency departments to triage patients directly to the ophthalmologist, who in some cases are significantly farther away than your office is.
Network with healthcare providers
Getting to know the other medical staff in your area is a great way to build your referral base. It may seem obvious to you that all rheumatologists need to have their Sjögren's/Plaquenil patients screened and that all endocrinologists have their diabetic patients’ retinas examined annually. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Letting other providers know of your presence and clinical skillset can promote referrals and co-management opportunities.
When you see a patient referred for a specific reason by their PCP, always remember to write a thank you letter back summarizing your findings and treatment. As a primary eyecare provider, you’ll always have cases where you seek to have additional lab work ordered or want a patient worked up for systemic disease (eg. type 2 diabetes). Contacting the patient’s PCP is a great way to introduce yourself, and open the door for future collaboration, co-management, and referrals.
In addition to your practice’s social media presence, there are numerous other avenues to write and publish content related to optometry and your practice (in fact, CovalentCareers is always looking for great optometry authors; drop us a line if you’d like to learn more). Most local communities will have newsprint publications circulated on a weekly/monthly basis. Getting in touch with editors can be a great way to get your first writing gig and promote your name within the community. This could be a one-time article you write on glaucoma, cataracts, or diabetes. Or this could be a series based on pertinent times of year—kids’ vision during back-to-school season, springtime allergies, summertime UV protection for AMD/cataracts, etc.
Writing to local businesses in the area (in addition to stopping by) can be another great way to spread the word about your practice. If you’re comfortable seeing ocular emergencies, write to/visit local businesses that tend to have a higher incidence of eye emergencies. Let them know they can be cared for by your team in lieu of heading straight to the emergency room. Having a metallic foreign body removed or corneal abrasion treated by a trained optometrist tends to produce superior outcomes for patients. Examples of these include welding/machine shops, paint/body shops, or landscaping/woodworking businesses. There is a good chance you’ll have a few of these establishments right around the corner from your practice location.
Final thoughts on marketing your practice
The marketing tips outlined in this article are just a few examples of effective techniques to get your optometry practice’s name out into the community. Depending on your practice location, some of these may be easier to implement than others. Your specific location may be conducive to an entirely different set of marketing opportunities, and that’s ok.
It is important to remember that each setting is unique and different. While transitioning away from your final-year externships or residency program and into clinical practice, expect things to be slightly different than what you’re used to. This is especially true if you’re transitioning from a previously busy clinical setting into a newer practice that you’re starting from the ground up. This could entail starting your own private practice, or having a leadership role in starting a new optometry department within a hospital/health center. Today’s optometrists have access to more optometric career avenues than ever.
The need for your practice’s services is out there; however, public awareness may take time to build. Wherever your career takes you after graduation, don’t be afraid to get involved and get out into the community. Get creative, think outside the box, and you’ll soon find your practice growing in ways you never expected.