Published in Non-Clinical
The First 10 Weeks After Ophthalmology Fellowship: How to Build a Patient Base as a New Ophthalmologist
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12 min read
As a new ophthalmologist, the first 10 weeks can be especially challenging! Amy Mehta, MD shares some great advice on growing your patient base while navigating this new territory.
So, you just completed your ophthalmology fellowship—more than 12 years of school and training! Primary calls, resident clinics, refills, prior authorizations—it’s all finally over! You envision starting work in a bustling practice where you see a large volume of patients. The clinic is well-organized, you operate often, and you have free time to spend with your family and friends, doing all those activities you loved to do years ago when you had free time.
Whether it’s a private practice setting or a more academically-based job, you are ready for your next move. And now that your next move—starting your first position—has arrived, the question becomes: now what?
I recently started working in a large, ophthalmology-specific private practice. As a highly motivated person, which most ophthalmologists are for having gotten this far in our careers, I have always strived to achieve the best for myself. I tried to work hard and fast in residency and fellowship clinics to learn as much as I could, see as many patients as possible, and provide the best care I could.
Now that I work at a practice and see patients, I am focused on building my patient base. According to Healio, “most ophthalmologists will complete between 5,000 and 8,000 patient encounters per year, which comes out to 31 to 50 patients per day.” (This is based on 3.5 clinic days per week and 46 weeks per year). This means that most new ophthalmologists need to actively build their patient list and gain referrals. You can’t expect to hit that 50-a-day number by sitting still!
Here are some tips and recommendations for marketing yourself as an ophthalmologist that I received and put into practice during my first months after fellowship.
Consider every patient who walks through your door an opportunity to gain 10 new patients.
See every walk-in, treat every emergency, and stay late if a patient is running behind. Everyone has a friend or family member with eyes, and possibly even eyes with disease (anything from requiring refraction to ocular pathology). Think of this network like a tree branching system, with each branch leading to more and more.
Giving each patient the time and attention they deserve is a great opportunity for a new ophthalmologist. Since your schedule is likely not overflowing at this stage in your career, take the time to discuss the exam with each patient and guide them through their care. In this way they are more likely to recommend their family and friends to you.
When I was just starting out, I had a patient come into the office and ask specifically for me. I was shocked—it was only my first week and I had seen only 10 patients total, how was it that someone even knew my name or to ask for me? On further prompting, I learned that she had heard that patients could come see me without waiting room time and that I personally sat and talked with patients for 30 minutes, rather than sending them to a technician. She wanted that kind of care. I was ecstatic: here was a referral by word of mouth!
Approximately 30% of my new patients have come in from referrals by friends or family members, making this a highly important method for me (and you) to gain patients.
Making yourself available for patients at times when there are limited ophthalmologists available will allow you to bring in patients who might otherwise have been referred elsewhere or who may have gone to other open clinics.
Introduce yourself to community physicians—urgent care centers, optical shops, optometrists, and other ophthalmologists in the community. Let them know you work Saturdays and/or Sundays. Once you have made your extended hours known to your community, you will be surprised how many patients are referred to you. Optical shops and urgent care physicians who may have a patient on a weekend with an eye emergency can send you their patients when there are not other ophthalmologists with open clinics that day. Other ophthalmologists may have a patient with an emergency over the weekend, and they’ll ask you to see them if they are not in town or do not have access to their clinic.
Most of the new patients and urgent care referrals I see are on my late evenings or on weekends. The large urgent care centers around me know I am available, and now I am an easy referral base for them.
Remember to write a consult letter back to the referring medical professional every time you see a patient. Every time they see your name on that letterhead it’s a reminder and a big driver of practice growth. Every one of these patients is another link on the tree branch to more patients. For you, this unfortunately may mean forgoing sleeping in on the weekend or a social event with your friends; however, we ophthalmologists are built for the long game. If we could make it through all the years of training, a few weekend mornings of acquiring patients with really no extra effort is worth the time.
This is probably the basis of all the tips included in this article. It basically comes down to marketing yourself. And here you thought you were done promoting yourself in essays for residency or for fellowship! The marketing you do here is different, however.
Gather information from your practice. What materials have other physicians in your practice used—pamphlets, fliers, your business card, referral pads, etc? Find out what insurance carriers you serve. Compile outreach packets. Maybe there is an outreach or marketing person in your practice who can help set you up. Find out where the optical shops, urgent cares, and optometry offices are in your neighborhood. Also look for health centers, religious centers, senior centers, and community centers.
If you have a few hours with no patients scheduled, use the time to canvas your area. You should literally be going door to door at these offices and introducing yourself. Hand your cards out and ultimately put a face with a name. Go there once, introduce yourself . . . and a month later, go back again and re-introduce yourself. The more facetime and commitment you show to being a referral source, the more committed they will be to being yours.
If you are a practicing surgeon, consider optometrists for your referral base and talk to them about your surgeries. Let them know you still need routine care for these patients and refractions and dispensing of glasses. Inform them you are not a threat to their business but in fact, an asset; you can share, or in insurance terms, “co-manage,” patients together.
To enhance this relationship even further you can consider hosting an event—dinner, refreshments, or lunch where you give a talk discussing a topic in ophthalmology. Typically, you should choose a topic that’s in your area of expertise. For example, I like to discuss glaucoma and cataract surgery. Invite optometrists and other medical professionals in ophthalmology to attend. Funding for this event can be provided by your practice, yourself, or even a pharmaceutical company. Talk to your pharmaceutical sales representatives and see if having one sponsor an event is possible. In this way, you can provide CME credits and education for your peers, as well as promote your name in the community.
Within your own practice, make yourself known to the other ophthalmologists and educate them on any specific assets you bring to the practice. For example, I am the only surgical glaucoma specialist for my large private practice in the Manhattan area. This is an asset and letting the other physicians know this can increase glaucoma referrals to me; vice versa, I will be able to refer patients with certain conditions to the right specialist. Consider putting up a large poster with your name and picture and a few bullet points about your specialty in your waiting room. That way patients who may need your services for themselves or for their family members will know about you. Find all avenues to get your name and face out there and REPEAT!
We live in a world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and email.
When used appropriately, social media could be the next step in communication and getting your name out there. Many successful social media bloggers will tell you just that—it’s how they make their living. I am suggesting that perhaps posting an interesting case (HIPAA protected, of course!), discussing a hot topic, or posting a successful event in your career—graduation, board exam results, your first surgery day in private practice, etc.—can garner attention, help you network, and even allow you to receive constructive advice from your fellow colleagues and like-minded physicians.
Provide patients with surveys and consider making your profile available on online health ranking websites such as ZocDoc or HealthGrades. Consider that a large percentage of patients, especially those living in large cities, use these methods to find their providers and even use these tools to make their appointments with their doctors.
On your practice website have a blurb about yourself, promoting your medical specialty and what you can offer to your patients and other colleagues. Also include something personal, something for patients and others to grab on to.
Make yourself welcoming and approachable. You can even consider having a video on the page of your blurb introducing yourself. You’ll receive valuable screen time and more face recognition by doing so.
Remember back during residency and fellowship when you dreamed of having more time to do the things you loved about medicine? Well, delivered to your front step right now is time. Get involved—health fairs, research, international work—find your niche.
Don’t forget why you started. Remember the things that make you excited about the field of ophthalmology. Find those things either within your practice or your community that keep you driven and motivated.
Reach out to senior ophthalmologists, and find out if they are involved in any clinical trials or if there is any research activity happening in your practice. Seek out community-based activities—international missions or local health fairs. If these programs do not exist within your practice, consider starting them yourself.
This is the start of your career and you can guide it in the direction you want. Sometimes having time is a little daunting, given you almost never had free time prior to this. Take advantage and use it to your benefit.
When you are first getting started as an ophthalmologist, remember that it takes time to get to that 50-a-day patient average. Stay focused on your passion for the profession and your customer base will follow.
Every patient I see gives me excitement and a rush of happiness that I am doing what I set out to do, so, as I grow in my career, I try to remind myself that it's a process, and going through the motions is part and parcel.
Good luck to all my fellow post-training graduates starting their careers!