You’ve done it! You’ve made it through the seemingly endless hurdles of optometry school, national boards, and finding your first job. Now comes the fun part, patient care; but how do you do that if you don’t have any patients?
Discovering your patient base can be one of the most important factors in getting started in your practice and keeping your schedule consistently filled over the long term. In this article, we’ll discuss a few key ways you can work to establish a solid patient base while avoiding some missteps along the way!
1. Network in your community
Networking and connecting with other people doesn’t just stop when your contract is signed. Keeping up an online presence through your practice’s social media, websites, Instagram, Linkedin, etc., can make it easier for potential patients to learn about you and for referring providers to see what services you may be providing.
If you or your practice take insurance(s), fit specific contact lens brands, or order from certain sites, it can also be helpful to make sure you appear on their respective “Find a Doc” feature (or its equivalent). Adding yourself to these listings is typically free and can normally be done by talking to your representative from that company or filling out a brief online form through their provider portal.
Just because we live in an online age, doesn’t mean the classics don’t still have their place.
“It can be a little more time consuming, but sitting down to research providers and businesses in your area is a tried and true way to get your name out there.”
Taking the time to pop into an office, show your face, and shake some hands (while sanitizing after!) carries a different weight when meeting other people in your area.
Visiting local businesses can also be a great networking opportunity. For instance, local auto body, mechanic and/or machine shops can be a great way to market your urgent eye care services (eg. metallic foreign body removal and chemical burns). Local hospitals, urgent cares, and other community clinics may also hold annual health fairs (or more frequent diabetes fairs) that can be great networking opportunities. Offering to volunteer at these events can help spread the word on your practice and skill set as an optometrist (eg. diabetic retinal exams).
2. Fulfill specialty optometry needs
If you offer any specialty eyecare services such as low vision, vision therapy, ocular surface disease management or specialty contact lens fittings, chances are that there are a few patients in your area that need just that, but don’t know where to go. If their current provider knows you are now offering this specialty service and knows you will take good care of patients, they’ll be more likely to send those patients your way.
Maybe you don’t provide a specialty service; fear not!
“If you currently have a lighter patient load, accepting emergency or medical exams or taking same-day walk-in appointments is a great way to fill out your schedule.”
These types of exams may require a certain level of comfort, but can also test your clinical skills all while helping those seeking care a bit more urgently.
If you’re comfortable seeing children for early-age pediatric exams, becoming a provider for InfantSEE or See to Learn through your State Optometric Association is a great way to provide eyecare to many children at no cost to their family. Coordinating care with local pediatricians can help increase awareness of these programs as well as aid in referrals coming to your practice. Connecting with parents during these exams also presents opportunities for the family to get acquainted with your practice and begin seeing you for their exams as well.
3. Find untapped mines
Unless you are located in a very isolated or rural area, there’s a good chance you may not be the only eyecare provider in town. Saturation can be very difficult to overcome, but sometimes it just takes a fresh perspective to find the gold in the pan.
Potential opportunities that may exist in your community include performing vision screening exams at daycare facilities or K-12 schools, sponsoring local sports teams, and joining your town’s chamber of commerce. Families can be a great patient base builder, and young kids can provide many avenues of care such as myopia management, contact lens fitting, refractive surgery, and so much more.
New housing developments or apartment complexes in your town/city can be great sources of new patients as well. Residents moving into these locations may be new to the area or just not have heard of you and/or your practice. Advertising to these homes through online posts, mail, or other forms of geo-targeting can easily get your info into their hands.
4. Make use of what you have
If your practice is lucky enough to already have a patient base (no matter how large or small), they can be prime in-house sources to gain new patients. Word of mouth is one of the most influential referral sources available to us today.
“One way to take advantage of word-of-mouth is to ask patients to leave reviews of your practice online.”
This can be done through Google, Facebook, Yelp, or other sites that allow reviews online. These reviews can strongly increase the online presence of your practice and help drive appointments, and in turn work to fill your schedule.
Depending on what benefits you are able to give patients, you could consider offering them in-office credit or discounts for referring friends and family (new patients) to your clinic. Though the price of the discount or credit may add up with time, the value of a new patient should greatly outweigh that, especially when they’re established and purchase contact lenses, spectacles, or other in-office items/therapies.
5. “I’ll See You In…”: pre-appointing optometry patients
Now you have a patient in your chair, let’s keep the momentum going! Return exams can play a crucial role in keeping your schedule booked year after year after year. Perhaps nothing demonstrated this more than the COVID-19 pandemic. During such a difficult time many patients missed their annual exams during the months when practices were closed. If those patients were not moved onto the schedule the following year, those months could once again be eerily quiet without their pre-appointed exams on the books.
“The importance of pre-appointing cannot be understated.”
If someone schedules their next exam before leaving your office they are more likely to keep that appointment and the percentage of that happening increases even more when that process is done closer to the exam room.
Pre-appointing also isn’t limited to only annual comprehensive exams. Booking follow-up appointments to monitor dry eye symptoms, assess a kid’s progressed myopic prescription, manage diabetic retinopathy, or perform baseline testing on a glaucoma suspect are other ways to show patients you care about their health, vision, and are monitoring their condition closely all while helping fill your schedule.
Mindfulness, patience, persistence
The largest hurdle that I have noticed in my own experience of establishing myself thus far is persistence. Just because I boost an Instagram post from the practice’s page announcing a new doctor and more availability to take patients doesn’t mean my slots will fill by the end of the week.
It’s also important to remember that not all of the above suggestions will work every time, or even for everyone. Each location, doctor, practice, and career goal is different. Some of this can be trial and error, but there are many resources available that can help you with this process such as marketing companies, local chambers, and more, you just have to know where to look.
Patience is truly a virtue, and it can be a tricky one to develop, but staying consistent can help chip away at establishing your base. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day and if you build it, they will come.