Even as its member practices have compiled several successive years of above-average growth, Vision Source leadership has made it a priority to stay abreast of the fast-changing health care landscape, particularly as its relates to value-based care and even industry consolidation. The impact of the latter already has been felt across the independent pharmacy sector, and that experience has not gone unnoticed by the Vision Source management team.

In addition, even as Vision Source members—the group operates as a franchisor—continue to grow and look for new opportunities, there’s a significant challenge to meet staffing demands across the group and to find successor eyecare professionals for members who are considering retirement or other exit-type strategies.

“We estimate that we need about 1,000 [new] associate doctors in our network,” vice president of business development Gregg Groenenman told Vision Monday, noting that Vision Source members often show annual growth rates five to 10 times greater than non-members, which adds to staffing demands for new ODs.

Among the challenges faced by Vision Source, as well as other affiliated groups of independent practice owners, is that across the eyecare space many Baby-Boomer optometrists are looking to retire or are trying to find buyers for their practices, Groenenman noted. “At the same time, you have a lot of strong industry consolidation happening around us,” he added. “And in the middle you have private equity groups leveraging the opportunities that are presented.”

One attempt by Vision Source to answer the staffing and succession challenges came in the launch of Vision Source Next, which was designed to help ODs “start, acquire, sell, mentor or work in a private practice with guidance and programs to assist from start to success,” according to the company.

“Part of Next is to go out and to tell the students about private practice, why it is a really great career choice, and why practice ownership allows you to practice at the high end of your licensure,” Groenenman explained. The objective is to ultimately present private practice as a compelling and smart career choice for the new and younger ODs.

Reaching out to these students in optometry schools—and Vision Source has events scheduled at just about every optometry school in 2019-2020—and helping to connect them with Vision Source members is a key component of Vision Source Next. Thousands of students and members have registered on the dedicated Next website.

At the same time, Vision Source recognizes that independent optometry is at or near the same place in its market as independent pharmacy and local hardware dealers found themselves two decades ago. Independent pharmacy, which lacked a unifying force to bring the group together, has shrunk significantly, while independent hardware stores—pulled together by Ace and True Value cooperatives—have managed to weather the storm and survive, Groenenman said.

“This is just a really fascinating time,” Groenenman said, noting that independent pharmacy was hit hard by big drugstore companies, in part “because they didn’t have anyone fighting for them.” He added, “We believe these are the same headwinds that optometry has [and] we are trying to galvanize and bring everybody together.”

Groenenman noted that Vision Source may have “a strategic advantage” in its effort to unite and boost independent optometry by virtue of the ownership group behind the company, EssilorLuxottica. “They have a very vested interest in private practice,” Groenenman said.

Another aspect of the Vision Source Next program, which executives noted for its success at the 2019 Exchange meeting, is the effort to facilitate the opening of new Vision Source locations,. Under the group’s growth initiatives, 43 new private practices debuted in 2018, Vision Source chief operating officer Jeff Duncan said at The Exchange. Two-thirds of these practices were opened by new members.