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A N.C. Eye Doc Passionate About Vision Health for Kids and Special Needs Patients

The vision health of children and those with special needs receives devoted, undivided attention at Special Eyes Pediatric Vision Clinic in New Bern, NC.

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THE IDEA

Special Eyes’ origins are traceable to a particular patient. In late 2014, Dr. Cathy Doty examined an 18-month-old boy who arrived at Family Eye Care in New Bern, NC, with an untreated strabismus that had notably delayed his general development. Troubled by the fact that his parents, as members of a public health scheme, had been forced to wait three months to see her — one of the few doctors in the area who accepted their coverage — Doty made the decision to dedicate herself to pediatric and special-needs optometry. Her partners were agreeable, and by May 2015 she had opened the business’s children’s facility, Special Eyes Pediatric Vision Clinic.

THE EXECUTION

Doty sees patients up to age 16 and special needs patients of all ages, offering comprehensive exams and emergency visits. “No two days are the same. Some patients come in on gurneys from residential facilities,” she says.

Staffing a niche practice presents unique challenges. “There are definitely some people who enjoy working with children, and the children can tell. I have provided some in-service training, and have put together [fitting] guidelines for our optical staff.”

Exam rooms are set up for comfort and fun. The décor draws largely on Doty’s own parenting experience, and audiovisual and sugary treats are deployed at strategic points throughout the process. “It is rare for us to need more than three adults to help us hold the child, but it has happened… I will do as much as the parents want me to do.”

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Doty has made it a mission to drum home to parents the link between vision health and behavioral issues. “Parents still believe when their children pass vision screenings at school and the pediatrician’s office, that their vision is fine. I see the ‘jaw drop’ reaction almost every day. Many of them have behavioral diagnoses and take heavy medications for issues that may have been related to their +6.00 OU prescriptions. If there are two things that I hope I can help change in this world, it would be: 1. All children deserve to have at least one comprehensive eye exam before they start school; and 2. Comprehensive vision exams should be part of the overall health evaluation of a child before they are labeled as ADD, ADHD, ODD, OCD, autism spectrum disorder, speech-delayed, or behaviorally disabled and placed on medications.”

THE REWARDS

Getting Dr. Doty to discuss herself is a challenge; this modest but highly accomplished and dedicated professional will turn the conversation back to the “critical issue of vision correction for the most vulnerable.” But she concedes being “blessed beyond measure to have a supportive husband, partner, amazing staff, and community.” She took a leap of faith, she says, “and God has provided. I can’t even put a price on what this has all meant to me personally.”

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Do It Yourself: Pediatric and Special Needs Optometry

1. TR GO NICHE. . Make contacts with pediatricians, therapists, school systems, and other eye doctors, Doty advises. “They will ALL be happy that someone is taking the lead to focus on children and/or special needs patients.”

2. AS Set the scene. Parents of kids and special needs patients like to be reassured they will have a caring experience. Special Eyes created a Google tour on its Facebook page, showing exactly what patients can expect during their visit.

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3. COA spoonful of… The No. 1 attraction in Doty’s exam rooms is the treat drawer, which helps her gain leverage. Special Eyes also has movies loaded on its M&S charts, and the children pick what they want to watch during retinoscopy and dilation.

4. CIMom’s the word. Nine times out of 10, says Doty, “Mom is the medical decision maker for the family. An OD who is willing to see their baby, free of charge, and provide good preventive care has won the family in most cases, whether or not the doctor takes their insurance.”

5. GO Soft touch. Frame selection is key, of course. Special Eyes carries Kids Bright Eyes, Dilli Dalli, Miraflex, and Solo Bambini. “We also love Gwen Stefani, Funoogles and Lindberg which allow older children to personalize their looks,” she says.

 

ONLINE EXTRA: Interview with Dr. Cathy Doty

To start with, what is the relationship between New Bern Family Eye Care and Special Eyes Pediatric Vision Clinic? How many ODs and/or opticians does Special Eyes itself employ?

DR. DOTY: My husband, Dr. Shawn Doty, and I are partners with Dr. Mark Leary. The three of us owned two freestanding offices, Pamlico Family Eye Care and New Bern Family Eye Care, up until three years ago. We hired an associate in 2011, Dr. Kim Oncavage. So, there are four of us. We have two optical staff in Pamlico and four in New Bern.

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What was your motivation for moving into this niche?

As the practice grew and our doctors were booked months in advance, a little patient changed my life. This article ran in my local paper, and The Associated Press picked it up: www.washingtontimes.com

Your practice accepted InfantSEE patients prior to the opening of Special Eyes, is that correct?

Yes.

What were the factors in your deciding to join this program, and why don’t more practices do so, in your opinion?

I knew Dr. [W. David] Sullins, the optometrist and founder of this program. InfantSEE was one of his most important legacies to optometry and public health. I wanted to answer the challenge that former President Jimmy Carter gave to [the American Optometric Association] to end amblyopia. I attended the workshops that were provided at several meetings, and then I began to tell parents about the program. Word of mouth and social media helped grow InfantSEE. I think that it is an amazing opportunity for optometry to do the right thing, and start the conversation with parents about the importance of vision care for children. I may not find any problems with a baby’s eye health or development, but I can educate a parent on the importance of proper follow ups, signs and symptoms of problems, and common myths about “pink eye”, etc. I think that a lot of ODs are uncomfortable examining babies, don’t trust their retinoscopy, or in their mind they just need to fill those appointment slots with “paying patients”. Here’s the amazing thing: Nine times out of 10, it’s mom who brings the child. Mom is the medical decision maker for the family. An OD who is willing to see their baby, free of charge, and provide good preventive care has WON the family in most cases, despite whether or not the doctor takes their insurance. InfantSEE saves vision, saves lives, and can help position a doctor as an expert in their community.

Could you provide a few details about the kinds of patients you see? What sort of services are offered to special needs patients? Are these all children or does this include special-needs adults?

I see pediatric patients (0-16 years old) and ALL special needs patients. We offer comprehensive exams and same day emergency visits with pediatrician referrals. No two days are the same, that is for sure! Some of the patients come in on gurneys from residential facilities.

For a different article, an optician once described the process of fitting a child with frames as (sometimes) being like “wrestling a greased pig”. (She meant it affectionately.) How have you and your opticians learned to cater to kids in the exam room and in the optical? Have you/they received special training in this, or can they learn on the job? Are some people just better at dealing with kids than others? What are the main challenges?

There are definitely some people who enjoy working with children, and what’s interesting is that the children can tell. I have provided some in-service training for my staff at SpecialEyes, and have put together guidelines for our optical staff in the main New Bern office for fitting procedures. In our exam rooms, everything is set up for the comfort and enjoyment of the experience. If you check our Facebook page, you will see photos of the rooms. You can also take a Google tour, which helps families with special needs children to decrease their anxiety about the visit. We have movies loaded onto the M & S charts, and the children get to select what they want to watch while I am performing retinoscopy, or when they are dilating. The No. 1 attraction in my exam rooms is definitely the TREAT DRAWER, and I use it as leverage throughout the visit. It is rare for us to need more than three adults to help us hold the child, but it has happened. My rule is that I will do as much as the parents want me to do. If they are willing to help me obtain the information I need, then we can usually complete the exam.

Judging from what I’ve seen online, your practice goes out of its way to way to provide a comfortable environment for kids. Was this hard to achieve? How do they respond to the experience?

We receive many compliments daily about how bright and fun the office is. The décor was easy to design because I just used a palette of colors and themes that reminded me of when my children were small. After the first visit, they feel at home and know exactly where everything is. They know we are there to provide a thorough examination and serve them and their families.

How about the parents? What are they usually most concerned about? You must have to spend a lot of time educating them about the particulars of pediatric vision care?

I find that parents still believe when their children pass vision screenings at school and the pediatrician’s office, that their vision is fine. I see the “jaw drop” reaction almost every day. Many of them have behavioral diagnoses and take heavy medications for issues that may have been related to their +6.00 OU prescriptions. If there are two things that I hope I can help change in this world, it would be these: 1. All children deserve to have at least one comprehensive eye exam before they start school; and 2. Comprehensive vision exams should be part of the overall health evaluation of a child before they are labeled as ADD, ADHD, ODD, OCD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Speech Delayed, Behaviorally Disabled, and placed on medications.

Do you sell Tomato Glasses or anything similar? Are you satisfied with what your insurance plans allow you to sell to kids in terms of frames? And what are your thoughts on children’s frames/lenses in general?

In terms of rubber frames, we carry Kids Bright Eyes, Dilli Dalli, Miraflex, and Solo Bambini. We also love the Gwen Stefani’s, Funoogles, and Lindberghs, which allow older children to personalize their looks. I have recently become very involved in our optical because I know what works. I think that insurance plans are not providing enough flexibility with younger patients who are growing so quickly. For example, it would be revolutionary for an insurance company to offer a “growth” flex plan, which allows a child to get new glasses in six months rather than waiting for a year. What 3-year-old child can wear the same pair of tennis shoes for a year? Overall, I am very disappointed with insurance plans when it comes to visual benefits for children and special needs patients.

Could you comment on the rewards for yourself personally, your staff, and the business? Both personally and financially?

As I told you, I am honored and humbled that someone thought I may be worthy of your time and print space. But this article does not need to be about me, or what I have done. Hopefully, this is a platform for more discussion on this critical issue of vision correction for the most vulnerable citizens in our country—children and special needs patients. I am just blessed beyond measure to have a supportive husband, partner, amazing staff, and community that have all supported this endeavor. It was a leap of faith, and God has provided. I can’t even put a price on what this has all meant to me personally.

What comments/advice/suggestions would you have for other independent ECPs thinking about pursuing this niche?

Just do it!!!! Make contacts with pediatricians, therapists, school systems, and other eye doctors. They will ALL be happy that someone is taking the lead in their community to focus on children and/or special needs patients. Who is better trained to take care of the eyes of these patients? NO ONE. Optometrists should be the leaders in this niche, and we need to cheer each other on.

After years covering some of the farther flung corners of the world of business journalism, Heath has more recently focused on covering the efforts of independent eyecare professionals to negotiate a fast-changing industry landscape. Contact him at heath@smartworkmedia.com.

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Best of the Best

Tennessee Practice Throws Itself an Epic Birthday Party, and Created a New Tradition

A Tennessee practice shows that an epic patient-appreciation event makes for a great business-building tool.

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ANDREW AND ELIZABETH HOWARD, optometrists and co-owners of LaFollette Eye Clinic in Jacksboro, TN, pride themselves on a level of service that has patients coming in from Ohio, Texas, and Florida. As the practice’s 30th anniversary approached in October last year, they decided a one-day trunk show wouldn’t reach as many people as they wanted. An occasion like this warranted something special.

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THE IDEA

“We like to capitalize on milestones as a way to generate interest, and the 30-year milestone was a great opportunity,” Andy recalls. When it comes to event planning, ideas at LaFollette are typically generated and fleshed out in-house by the practice’s eight-person Leadership Team, which collectively boasts decades in eyecare. But, they also enjoy looking at other practices and sharing ideas with other doctors. “This event was a mixture of the two techniques. We traditionally hold one or two open houses or trunk shows a year, but we had never held a week-long celebration,” Howard says.

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THE EXECUTION

It took the team several meetings to brainstorm ideas, then organize them. Various aspects were delegated to different leads on the team. Says Andy: “Involving the team builds engagement, loyalty and morale, and helped us keep our costs down.”

A “Diamonds and Pearls” theme was chosen. According to Andy, these are not only “modern and traditional anniversary gifts, but it’s also a great song by Prince.” The celebration itself featured giveaways, prizes, a 30-percent off sale, snacks and drinks all week, activities such as face-painting for kids, cornhole, and a “photo booth” with a retro-style instant camera for patients who used ’80s-themed props or their own new glasses for digital images that were shared on social media. In addition, demonstrations were held with reps from local crafters and artists’ groups — even a Lion’s Club member who brought in leader dogs for the blind. (A donation drive was held for the Lion’s Club.)

A local artist’s association was invited to bring in artwork; these were joined on LaFollette’s walls by “storyboards” highlighting the practice’s services, including photographs going back to the ’80s. Long-time patients and ex-staff members joined the celebration, and the optical even changed the music to ’80s hits for the week.

The costs were “minimal” given the scale of the event. A giant eyeglasses balloon sculpture was the most expensive item. “We had enough cupcakes for everyone, but they were made by a team member who is a wonderful baker.” All giveaways were donated by local businesses in exchange for marketing.

THE REWARDS

The biggest surprise to Andy was how many people showed up just to wish LaFollette a happy anniversary. Sales were up during the week, but that was secondary to the goal of celebrating and thanking patients, he says. “It was more fun than we’ve had in a long time; that by itself is worth the effort.” He adds: “Now we need to begin looking for another excuse to have a week-long celebration… We had too much fun to wait 10 more years!”

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Do It Yourself: Hold A 
Patient-Centered Celebration

  • ALL HANDS ON. The key, says Andy, is involving the whole team. “So many people have different talents, and an event like this allows that talent to shine.”
  • CROSS-PROMOTE. Talk to neighboring businesses and see if they’ll contribute prizes in exchange for some free marketing.
  • GO WITH A PRO. Failing to plan is planning to fail. If you don’t have the HR depth that LaFollette has, consider using a professional event planner.
  • WIDE FOCUS. To foster a sense of community, think beyond eyewear. According to Andy, the leader dog for the blind was one of the hits of the week.
  • PICK A MOTIF. Choosing a theme gives you a hook to hang activities on. Practice turning 20? Ask your stylist for “The Rachel.”

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Make the Best Use of a Great Resource: Your Fellow ECPs

A Texas OD’s study group helps eyecare business owners ‘get outside the bubble of their own practice.’

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Dr. Carrie Alfieri thinks of her practice as being on a 20- to 40-year journey.

TO SUCCEED, IN PRACTICE, it is much easier to operate with help from outside sources,” says Carrie Alfieri, OD, founder and CEO of Pinnacle Eye Associates in McKinney, TX. “It’s too hard to operate in a vacuum.” It was this realization that led Dr. Alfieri to get involved in M2M (member to member) meetings sanctioned by PERC+IVA, an alliance of the Professional Eyecare Resource Co-Operative and Infinity Vision Alliance, two nationwide group purchasing organizations comprising independent eyecare practices. As the leader of a group that hosts M2Ms, her official title is Key Advisor (KA) for PERC+IVA. There are about 25 KAs around the U.S. “Think of it as a study group with a facilitator,” Alfieri says.

THE IDEA The M2M format was supplied by PERC+IVA’s leadership, but the study group concept is not new and has been around for over 50 years. “The problem with many study groups,” Alfieri says, is that “either they have very limited access — invitation only — or can be very expensive as you have to join a group or hire a consultant.” The beauty of the PERC+IVA meetings is that they are free to any member.
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“I like to look at my practice as a 20 to 40-year journey,” she says. “We all have different needs depending where we are on that time line. The idea is that there are plenty of patients around, we want to help each other by sharing not only best practices or processes that work, but also things that we have tried and failed. We can all learn from each other and no one is an expert in all areas. That’s the beauty of an M2M meeting: We can all learn how to do something better.” The basic goals are to help drive change, accelerate learning and aid implementation.

THE EXECUTION The main role of the KA is to lead a facilitated discussion that revolves around a central theme. Optometric technology, patient care, the business side, medical developments and many more topics are all ripe for discussion. “I like to think of it as doing a deep dive into a process and helping to connect the dots. It is almost like thinking out loud with a group and using a framework. The framework is the foundation, but the attendees add the details to really make the process shine and excel,” says Alfieri, whose qualifications to be leading such a group are solid: Pinnacle Eye Associates was recognized as a 2018 Best Practice for excellence in eyecare and advancing the industry by CooperVision.
Each KA group is autonomous. PERC+IVA allows any owner, be they an OD, MD or optician, to participate. Each KA creates a “safe” meeting environment that encourages mutual assistance and sharing. The KA can poll the attendees for the upcoming meeting and allow office managers or opticians to attend depending on the topic. On the other hand, if it is felt that the presence of staff might stifle an open and free discussion on a specific topic, that meeting may be limited to owners only. The group sends out invites to all local members and Alfieri often sends out some personal emails. Her group meets quarterly.

THE REWARDS As a group, Alfieri says she and her colleagues strive to challenge the status quo and work together to make their practices more efficient, profitable, technologically advanced, and superior in customer service. In-office, she points out, doctors are not often exposed to new products, technologies, or new or different processes of operating. “The study group allows doctors to get outside the bubble of their own practice and push their office to do better, achieve more, and stay ahead of current trends, ultimately giving patients the best care.” The first step, she says, is simply making the commitment to get involved. “You will be amazed at what you can learn and accomplish.”

Do It Yourself

  • GO YOUR OWN WAY. Not a PERC+IVA member? Network with ODs or owners at your state association and suggest starting your own group.
  • FOLLOW THE LEADER. Appoint a facilitator who can keep each meeting focused on a central theme. It’s easier said than done in a group setting.
  • MIX IT UP. Alfieri says her KA group was put together “with diversity in mind.” Members are from all walks of life and own various models of business.
  • GET A ROOM. Organize a dedicated venue that’s distraction-free. Alfieri’s group meets “in a room that has four walls and a door for privacy.”
  • RE-CAP. Consider a quick “review” at the conclusion of the session to lock in on what was discussed.

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A Norcal Practice Took A Trunk Show and Turned It Into an Annual Message of Thanks to Its Patients

Take a trunk show and turn it into a message of thanks to your customers.

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ARENA EYE CARE OPTOMETRY in Sacramento, CA, wanted to put on an event that would bring customers, staff and industry reps together, with emphasis on saying ‘thanks’ to patients. So, they took that industry stalwart, the trunk show, and put their own spin on it. They’ve been holding their annual Patient Appreciation Day for seven years now, and from judging this year’s response, it’s still going strong.

THE IDEA

Dr. Shephali Patel and Dr. Krister Holmberg, owners of Arena Eye Care Optometry in Sacramento, CA, were looking for a way to present customers and patients with a more varied selection of top-tier frames than their optical ordinarily carries. Patel recalls, “We wanted a recurring event that would include a trunk show but was patient-centric.” To set their new event apart, the first step was to give it a place on the calendar: they attached a fixed date (the second Friday in March) that clients could associate with the practice over time. They paid extra attention to giveaways and other forms of personal attention to attendees. Patel points out that she didn’t coin the phrase “Patient Appreciation Day,” but the event has become a part of Arena’s brand.

THE EXECUTION

Ahead of the day, Arena sends out newsletters to patients, puts ads in a local magazine and does a weeklong Facebook ad campaign.
The core of the event is essentially a trunk show, for which some of Arena’s favorite vendors are invited. “We have two sessions,” Patel explains. “Our office hours on Friday are 9-6, so we go 9-1 and have a break for lunch and then 2-6.” The practice continues to see patients during both. “In [each of] the two sessions we might have two or three vendors. They bring in their whole collections and we rearrange our optical for them.” Patel and Holmberg try not to invite reps with lines that are natural competitors. “We wouldn’t do Nike with Oakley … We pick things that are complementary.” Arena takes particular interest in technological innovations; this year they treated customers to a preview of PogoCam, a camera made by PogoTec that attaches itself to glasses.
To keep things fresh, Patel tries to rotate her invitations to reps. “We’ll cycle them so that it’s [one invitation] every three or four years.” Staff decorate the optical themselves and offer refreshments. Several frame lines are highlighted and there are giveaways and a raffle. This year Gucci and Tom Ford reps brought in over 100 frame styles. A Tom Davies rep also attended. Other brands featured included bebe, Joseph Abboud, Oakley, Marchon NYC and Lacoste.

THE REWARD

As for the turnout, “We’ve always done well with it,” says Patel, though results are hard to predict. “The best one we’ve had was during a rainstorm … sometimes it just doesn’t make sense … but we do a good job of creating excitement and inviting people back. I think that’s the key.”
While there are practical rewards — they sell more multiples than usual that day — mostly it’s about having fun. “It is a lot of work but a lot of fun for everyone: doctors, staff and patients.”

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