While disruptive innovation in the eye care industry receives limited attention compared to mainstream examples like Netflix’s disruption to the video rental industry, it does occur and warrants more of our awareness.
Why? Disruptive innovation has the potential to change the way we practice optometry (for better or for worse) and alter the standards of care for our patients.
What Disruptive Innovation Is (And Isn’t)?
Disruptive innovation was introduced by Harvard business school professor Clayton Christensen and describes a phenomenon where innovation in products or services leads to the creation of new markets and ultimately displaces existing competitors.1
The term is frequently confused with the idea of technological advancement. For example, femtosecond laser-assisted cataract surgery is a relatively novel and appealing alternative to conventional surgical procedures, but it is not truly a disruptive innovation.
Examples of Disruptive Innovation in the Eye Care Industry
Warby Parker’s rise in popularity over the past few years represents a unique example of disruptive innovation.
By employing a strategy of vertical integration, the company is able to cut costs and offer eyeglasses at a lower price point than many other leading eyewear companies. More broadly, disruptive innovation is evident amongst any online glasses or contact lens retailers. The e-commerce business has disrupted the traditional mode of purchasing eyewear solely through brick-and-mortar locations, thus making glasses and contact lenses widely accessible at a low cost.
While the above examples are an unwelcome competitive threat for the majority of optometry practices, disruptive innovation can also be a force for good.
Joshua Silver pioneered the idea of DIY adjustable liquid-filled eyeglasses with the hopes of improving vision for people in developing countries.2 The ability to self-adjust the lens power addresses the current challenges for those who cannot afford glasses or lack access to an eye care provider. Despite some concerns related to distribution, cost, and manufacturing, the initiative is believed to dramatically improve the quality of life, economic potential, and literacy rates of individuals in developing communities.2
The Implications of Disruptive Innovation for Optometrists
The above examples imply that disruptive innovation in the eye care industry is a double-edged sword that evokes both fear and optimism for the future.
If this is true, then how can we more confidently assess the merits of disruptive innovation, from our own perspective and from the perspective of our patients? Or should we even care at all?
To answer these questions, there are three widespread consequences of disruptive innovation to consider:1
- It grants patients the autonomy to perform activities that were previously restricted to skilled professionals
- It has the long-term potential to alter patients’ attitudes and behaviors
- It leads to the creation of low-cost alternatives
Using the example of online contact lens retailers, it is possible to pinpoint the potential dangers associated with each of the major consequences:
- Eye health can be jeopardized when contact lenses are ordered online with no prior fitting or assessment
- E-commerce sales contribute to the perception that contact lenses are a commodity product rather than a medical device
- Inexpensive online offerings can negatively impact optometric sales
The three overarching consequences can guide our understanding of disruptive innovation, regardless of the particular circumstances.
In some cases, disruptive innovation represents a catalyst for positive change and therefore should be willfully embraced.
The original researcher of this phenomenon agrees, stating that it ultimately improves the quality of health care for everyone.2 As with the DIY adjustable eyeglasses example, the means to achieve this may be untraditional, but the benefits are difficult to dispute.
The Way Forward
Since disruptive innovation will continue to shape the optometric landscape, ignoring its influence is not the best course of action.
Generally speaking, it is beneficial to be aware of emerging industry developments, regardless of whether or not it might have a direct impact on day-to-day practice. This is important because disruption has a foothold in industries that are both incapable and unwilling to deviate from the status quo despite evidence to suggest that change is on the horizon.
Secondly, it is useful to identify and deliver on the shortfalls of disruptive innovation. In other words, there should be an ongoing effort to consistently exceed patient expectations. While there are numerous ways to achieve this, one of the most valuable approaches is to offer an individualized patient experience.
Since disruptive innovation is aimed at serving the masses, it overlooks the importance of specialized eye care services or products designed for a specific visual task.
Lastly, solutions can arise at the industry level. Since optometry is a legislated profession, it is important to take a stance on issues that are believed to have a detrimental impact on the health and safety of our patients.
While the solutions may vary, one thing is certain: disruptive innovation matters. Although the causes may be outside of our control, we have a choice about if, how, and when we choose to adapt to these inevitable changes.
- Christensen CM, Bohmer R, Kenagy J. Will disruptive innovations cure health care? Harvard Business Review. 2000; 78(5): 102-112,199.
- Addley E. Inventor's 2020 vision: to help 1bn of the world's poorest see better. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2008/dec/22/diy-adjustable-glasses-josh-silver. Published December 22, 2008. Accessed March 14, 2017.