BUSINESS: The Independent Eye: Optical on Main Street During the Pandemic, ECPs Find Themselves Reaching Out to Colleagues for Ideas, Advice and Support By Mark Tosh Wednesday, January 20, 2021 2:30 PM Best Practices ODs from 2017 NEW YORK—The COVID-19 pandemic has changed much about the way people think and go about their day-to-day business routines. But one thing that hasn’t changed—and indeed it’s become an even more enduring part of life—is the need to reach out to colleagues for support and advice on the best ways to manage during these difficult times. This is true across many professions and lifestyles, of course, and it definitely has found a place in many eyecare professional groups and circles of ECP friends and colleagues. Among the various groups of ECP professionals who are trying to use collaboration as an important component of their business practices today are the informal practice groups that have developed via the connections made among the ODs who have been recognized by CooperVision with a “Best Practices” award. The program launched in 2016 and has recognized 50 different practices across the nation over the five years of the program. In their recent discussions, many of the Best Practices ECPs have noted that they find the peer collaboration component to be invaluable these days, given some of the new challenges that have cropped up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.Jason Ortman, OD For example, Jason Ortman, OD, of Black Diamond Eye Care in Castle Pines, Colo., who was honored as a Best Practice in 2017, said that initially he and many of the other honorees could get together for in-person meetings at industry conferences or CooperVision meetings, but the pandemic ended those face-to-face get-togethers. As a result, he said, the doctors have come to rely on group texting services or social media platforms. “There are a couple of us who have a group text in which we share ideas and information,” he said. “This really came alive when COVID struck in early March. Among the other independent ECPs in the text group are Kerry Giedd of Eola Eyes in Orlando, Fla., and Chris Smiley of Worthington, Ohio.Some of the topics he has discussed with doctors in his group texts are, going back to the beginning of the pandemic last March, how to maintain staff, how to apply for PPP loans and other operational issues. “Kerry and I were in a group text [the other day] talking about end-of-the-year equipment purchases and other capital investment opportunities,” Ortman said. “And Chris and I were talking about employee benefits earlier.”Although it’s helpful to get the point of view of ODs in other areas of the country, Ortman said he has no problem in collaboration with ECPs who are in and around his Denver marketplace. “There are certain topics that I will even talk to local doctors here about,” he noted. For example, he said, PPE availability is a concern for all ECPs and is not a competitive issue. You want to see everyone succeed.”Ian Whipple, ODIan Whipple, OD, of Vision Source Farr West in Farr West, Utah, said he also has benefited from collaboration with other ECPs in his group. “I think the collaboration was easy,” he said. “It didn’t feel forced and it didn’t feel contrived. It was just a genuine group of doctors who are trying to create a better patient experience and a better life for themselves as practice owners as well as their employees.”The Farr West practice, which has two ODs covering the office, has seemed to find it benefits by finding new ways of doing conventional things, Whipple said. And via its collaborative efforts, Whipple said he’s found that things that he thought were different are common among some of his innovative peers.“We were doing some [different] things in our office that I thought were maybe a little strange or a little odd,” he explained “I didn’t recognize that maybe they were noteworthy and something that other offices across the country would be interested in.”Among the “collaborators” in his groups are Raj Patel, OD, of Vancouver Vision Clinic and Rob Szeliga, OD, of Spring Hill Eyecare of Spring Hill, Tenn.Whipple added, “And I was surprised to see so many like-minded doctors who were doing [similar] things in their offices. Some of these things were actually working. It’s amazing.”Among the ideas Whipple has rolled out are the removal of telephones from the main floor of the office (moved them to a backroom or non-conspicuous area), dropping the role of “office manager” and spreading the responsibilities across several other staff members.“Office manager is a position that takes years to train and it’s a huge investment,” he said. “It’s a challenging position to fill, so we decided to split those duties among four people and if one moves on then I only have to retrain one-fourth of the office manager position.”He added, “When I met with some of the other doctors, they were doing similar things and maybe solving some of the same problems in a completely different way. But I think most of us were thinking about the patient experience and how we can make a trip to the optometry office not so intimidating and not so scary. Maybe even, if I dare say it, make it fun.”Katherine Schuetz, ODThe collaborations often go beyond the mundane operational and execution types of topics to more personal and care-related things that lead to deeper friendships. In some cases, doctors want to get recommendations to help patients who are moving to another area of the country and need to connect with a new ECP practice. “This just happened within our Facebook group,” said Katherine Schuetz, OD, of Little Eyes in Carmel, Ind. With the coronavirus outbreak limiting travel and in-person meetings, Schuetz said most of her collaboration efforts recently have been through social media and Facebook pages that are set up for the Best Practices groups, as well as specific group texts. “It’s definitely been minimized [by the pandemic] and there have been fewer opportunities,” she said.Schuetz was named a Best Practice in 2017 in the third year of Little Eyes’ launch. A core philosophy and mission of the practice is to “be bigger than just ourselves,” which has led to various assistance programs in both the local community and internationally. A team from the Little Eyes practice traveled to the Dominican Republic in February 2019 to serve people needing eyecare in both Santo Domingo and multiple remote villages. During the trip, more than 800 pair of glasses were provided to those in need in just a few days.Behind this effort was the support of the connections and collaboration of all the doctors who were part of the 2017 Best Practices group, Schuetz noted. They supported her mission trip with eyewear donations, and even covered the costs of shipping the glasses to her and other related items. “Not only did they go through the rigmarole of doing it, they donated their time and resources to us so kindly and it was awesome.” She added, “It was just fun to hear other, like-minded progressive disruptors in our specialty,” she said. “And, after that, we got to know people. So, then this just spring boarded for our mission trip.”Schuetz said she’s hopeful that in-person meetings resume this year, but in the meantime she’s trying to collaborate using Zoom meetings and other technologies. “I’ve been able to do a couple Zoom webinars, and getting to talk with other doctors has been great. But you just miss everybody. “I’m anxious to get back to a big meeting where I can see some of the other people. And I hope that at some point we can do a Best Practices reunion because there really has been just so many great people that you don’t get to see all of the time.”The 2021 group of Best Practices will be announced by CooperVision in March.