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Where independent optometrists can succeed – Steven Johnston

Steven Johnston

After 10 extremely rewarding years leading the ProVision organisation, it is time for me to leave the wonderful industry of optometry that I’ve grown to love.

It’s satisfying to consider the fundamental shifts we’ve delivered over the last 10 years to equip independents with technology and systems that allow them to remain commercially competitive, while leveraging the clinical elements that make them unique.

Some naysayers would have you believe that independent practice is under considerable threat from other operating models and increasingly online players, however our data across 450 practices would suggest otherwise. By and large our members continue to grow.

There is also the myth that independent practice is inefficient with a cost to serve. Showing personal care for patients is good for business because there are still many consumers who crave a personal relationship with their healthcare provider.

Across my journey, many practitioners and industry leaders have impressed upon me the importance of sustaining a vibrant independent sector.

In my view, the corporates, franchises, and consolidators tend to succeed (in terms of generating profit) by homogenising the product, service, and patient experience so they can leverage their collective volume at the lowest possible cost.

As a true layman in this space, I can still observe this does not always bring benefit to everyone equally. The end user benefit of commoditisation is that patients will get the same product or service every time, and generally at a lower price, which may suit some.

But this does little to help the outliers who have unusual conditions or difficult prescriptions. I have heard too many stories of challenging patients referred to independent practitioners, likely consuming too much chair time to pass the commercial scrutiny test. Without independents, where would these patients go?

Conversely, independent practices succeed by offering the antithesis of commoditisation. They generally offer differentiated frames and lenses, bespoke services, and deliver a personalised patient experience that is hard to replicate because it includes continuity of care from the same optometrist over an extended period.

Independent optometrists have been able to determine what equipment they use, what appliances they prescribe, and what areas they might like to explore due to special interest, and nearly always with patient outcomes – not profit outcomes – in mind.

A great example was shared with me recently of an optometrist who had personally suffered from dry eye for 20 years and was therefore driven to explore all possible remedies for his patients because he could empathise with the impact on their quality of life.

Importantly, many independent optometrists have expressed to me that they particularly enjoy the clinical challenge interesting patients present. We should be thankful that they do.

Optometry has undergone a massive transition over the past few decades as the retail component increasingly generates the revenue that funds practice operations, and consequently, investment in clinical technology. The challenge for independent practitioners has often revolved around focusing on the clinical rather than the commercial, but I see that changing as the ‘mature’ clinicians see the connection between the two sometimes opposing tensions.

And for the younger brigade, it’s just the way it is. The reality is that they are joined at the proverbial hip. You can’t have contemporary clinical excellence without a commercially successful enterprise that can invest in the technology. It is a virtuous circle.

For independent optometry to continue to flourish in Australia, practice owners need to commercialise their special interests so they are famous for what they uniquely do in their local communities.

To me that is a remarkably simple thing to do.

As my good friend from Nebraska Tom Bowen, has taught me: if you want someone to know and value what you do – tell them!

Use every communication point that you have: in room, front of house, website, social media to consistently tell the story that you would want told about you and your practice.

Then embrace technology to improve your practice efficiencies and the model will continue to work, whilst generating considerable personal and professional reward.

May you all continue to do great things for your communities.


Name: Steven Johnston
Qualifications: B Bus (Mkt)
Business: ProVision (former CEO)
Location: Melbourne
Years in industry: 10

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