Eyecare industry comes together in COVID-19 virtual town hall

Business thought leaders offer advice to ODs to weather the novel coronavirus

Updated 3/29/20 with information from the second part of the two-part virtual town hall.

Note: This story will be updated with information from the second of a two-part virtual town hall. Join the conversation at 9 PM ET tonight (March 26, 2020) at https://www.powerpractice.com/the-power-hour/listen-to-the-show/.

Related: Can azithromycin treat COVID-19?

As a profession, optometry is uniting to weather the storm of novel coronavirus 2019 and associated COVID-19. One example of this took place last night.

Gary Gerber, OD, founder and CEO of The Power Practice, hosted the first of a two-part virtual town hall on #Save2020Eyecare. The town hall was conducted via Dr. Gerber’s weekly optometry radio show, Power Hour.

Related: COVID-19 and contact lens wear: What ODs and patients need to know

PART ONE

“Tonight is the beginning for industry and doctors to pull together by sharing knowledge to ensure our profession will move forward,” Dr. Gerber says at the start of part one of the virtual town hall.

Bart Foster, founder and managing director of Sanitas Advisors, explained why the eyecare industry may lose stand to lose up to $1.7B per month. He created a short animation to show how.

Dr. Gerber asked leaders of ophthalmic businesses to share their thoughts on decision-making during difficult times and what advice they offer to ODs.

Related: What the COVID-19 relief package means for ODs

Part one's panelists include:
• Marc Ferrara, CEO of information services at Jobson Medical Information
• Tom Burke, CEO of ABB Optical
• Jerry Warner, executive vice president Americas and global commercial functions at CooperVision
• Rick Gadd, president of Essilor of America
• Jim McGrann, chairman and CEO of Healthy Eyes Advantage
• Thomas Swinnen, president North America at Johnson & Johnson Vision
• Fabrizio Uguzzoni, president of Luxottica Wholesale
• Bob Schultz, president and CEO of Vision One Credit Union
• Michelle Skinner, chief network officer of VSP

Following is advice offered by each panelist.

Related: Coronavirus: A quick summary for optometrists

Marc Ferrara
Mr. Ferrara shared highlights from Jobson Medical Information’s Coronavirus research, which is available here.

“As of this afternoon, 60 percent of practices surveyed were closed, and 40 percent have to lay off all or some of staff,” he says.

In addition, 13 percent of practices surveyed are participating in telehealth.

“Seventy percent of practices now expect a significant financial impact to their business, and two-thirds put their stress level between 7 and 10,” he says.

Related: Optometry during COVID-19 pandemic

Tom Burke
“No one is immune to this,” he says. “Whether you’re a small business or a big business, if this thing continues, we are all going to be faced with difficult, terrible decisions. What gets me through it is the target: the rehire and the recovery. You have to get through the short term.”

“If you have to lay people off, communication is critical. People want transparency. Culture shows up in the worst of times, not the best of times. Now it’s the worst. If we have to make tough decisions, if we are transparent and focus on the rehire, it will get us through this. I hope it will be only a 60-day period.”

Related: Eyecare industry comes together in COVID-19 virtual town hall

“We have to make sure we understand the government programs. Understand how to get to the resources that can help you.”

“Focus on five things,” he says:
• Revenue. “You have to reinvent your business right now. You have to figure out how to survive, but you’ll need to be creative to support your patients.”
• Stores. “This is employees, operation, and facilities. What does that look like when you open again?”
• Cash flow. “This is whether you win or lose. Know what is essential to you right now. If your revenue goes away, you’ll be crippled by your balance sheet.”
• Recovery. “Decisions have to be fact based not only for now but on the other side in recovery. I’m fearful it will look very different in 60 or 90 days.”
• Communication. “This is key to employees, partners, and vendors. Make sure it is transparent and regular.”

Related: How ODs are addressing COVID-19 in their practices

Jerry Warner
“We need to find ways to stay connected during difficult times,” he says. “A strong notion to remember is that we are not in this alone. Manufacturers depend on you. Your landlord depends on you. Patients depend on you. The commitment to rebuild will need to be there, and I believe it will be.”

“Consider your cash flow. However, you can make your goods still available to your patients, use them. Keep the cash coming in.”

“Lean on your community resources. Federal, state, and local guidance is available. In your own community, know where the resources are to translate the latest executive orders or the relief that is coming.”

Related: Eyecare practitioners urged to provide emergency care only amid COVD-19

“It is critical that you begin to plan now for when you are going to open. It will keep the notion of this possibility existing for you. Nobody can say we know when we are coming out of this. It will be later rather than sooner, but you can’t be over-prepared for when that opportunity comes.”

“Most of us have a list of items that we have been thinking about but no time to do. It’s hard to build the car while you’re driving it. Now the car is parked, so it’s time to implement those things. Think about how to restructure patient flow. Or clean up your patient database. Training for you and the staff you maintain.”

“Keep your network open. It’s not just social connection but business as well.”

“Communicate with your patients from day one. It’s about strengthening your relationship with your patients and being present so when you do open for business, you won’t be a stranger to them.”

“As you see the light at the end of the tunnel, signal to patients that you are getting ready for them.”

“Let your staff know when you might be ready to bring them back. Keeping a relationship with those who you had to let go will be difficult, but they will value it. Those staff may be waiting for your call when you are ready to bring them back.”

Related: ARBO loosens rules on online CE during COVID-19 pandemic

Rick Gadd
“You need to get comfortable with ambiguity,” he says. “You will never have enough information. Focus on the problem.”

“You must have a network to go to. Know subject matter experts who you trust, then collectively you have to make a decision. You have to make it quickly, then move on to the next one. Get comfortable with the fact that it may not be the perfect decision.”

“We are all going to go through this tsunami together. Nobody is in a better or worse position.”

“We are a resilient industry. Eye care matters. The prospects for the future are powerful. Focusing on the future by making good decisions today will build for the recovery.”

Related: One OD weighs in during office closure

Jim McGrann
“Take in as much information as you can,” he says. “Use resources like the Harvard Business Review and the Boston Consulting Group.”

“Remember this quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
‘In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing…and the worst thing you can do is nothing.’”

“Keep in mind these four characteristics of a leader:
• Decisive
• Enabling
• Adaptable
• Deliver results”

“When making decisions under stress, you want to challenge your desire to be perfect. In running the business, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Make decisions as quickly as you can with the information you have.”

“Delegate what you can. If you’re not an HR expert, other people are. Outsource and delegate whenever you can to take those decisions off your plate.”

“Figure out the opportunities amid the uncertainty. They will be the shining stars.”

“As a leader, you want to be part of the solution. Engage with your team, take phone calls, be involved with your patients and suppliers. Be seen as part of the solution.”

“Be prepared for the rebound. Implement the lessons that we’re learning as we move forward.”

“Continue to see urgent cases. Leverage telemedicine solutions. Engage with your patients, especially your contact lens patients because you can continue to serve them.”

“Continue to demonstrate your leadership within health care. Invest your time in expanding your knowledge and services.”

“Show your team and your patients that you care.”

“Remember this from Jimmy Buffet:
‘It's these changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes
Nothing remains quite the same
With all of our running and all of our cunning
If we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane’”

“Take a moment to laugh and enjoy your families because that is what is going to get us through this.”

Related: Telemedicine in optometry: Is it inevitable?

Thomas Swinnen
“There isn’t one great solution out there,” he says.

“I go through three steps in decision making:
• What’s the right thing to do?
• How can I alleviate the pressure and reduce impact?
• Acknowledge these things are difficult; there is no such thing as the right answer, and you need to accept that.”

“Keep an eye on the future. We know that the need for eye care will only increase. It doesn’t make the decisions easier. The patients out there are all waiting for us.”

Fabrizio Uguzzoni
“Take seriously what has happened,” he says. “It’s a new world out there. There is no prewritten book on what to do. Look out for each other.

“The priority is to understand how to navigate. Address your people and your business. Make sure you remain in business.”

“Use the downtime you have today to remain mentally clear. Don’t go down the rabbit hole of what is going on outside. There are people depending on you to make good decisions and to be there to support them.”

“Consider when, how, and what:
• When: Now you don’t know when the new era will happen. Remain flexible and nimble.
• How: You might have scaled down your business. How will you restart? Will it be 50 percent of before you closed? Or 75 percent?
• What: Look at your supply chain, your dispensary, telemedicine, digital, and communication with vendors and patients.”

“Without the right people, you won’t have a good business. Keep in touch with your people and know who the valuable people are that you want back.”

Related: 7 tech trends to use in your practice

Bob Schultz
“All moves should be thought out and not made hastily,” he says. “You should develop and execute a workable plan to replace your panic.”

“We expect the economy to come back up in a recession. Three-quarters of the economy is due to consumer spending, and that has been hit pretty hard.”

“Not all patients will come back initially, and when they do, they likely won’t buy much outside of what their insurance covers, if they still have insurance.”

“Understand your cash cycle timing-see patients, bill, receive payment. Usually it’s one to two months. If you’re still open, you need to look at the number of you’re doing. Payments coming in now are from last month and the month before.”

“And remember that the lab works in reverse upon reopening. How much working capital do you need to cover that period? Bring the staff back. Start paying things again. But you don’t have substantial income coming in for a month or two. Manage the costs on the way back up. Don’t overhire people back. Gauge your volume. Don’t replace inventory if you aren’t selling it.”

“Look on www.visionone.org for resources on financial survival.”

“If you have a 15 to 20 percent revenue drop and you take no action to manage your overhead, you’ll have no business.”

“If you can manage your expenses, you can manage a significant part of your cash flow.”

“If you’re shut down, you need to get to zero cash outflow as quickly as you can.”

Michelle Skinner
“We are taking this day by day given how dynamic the situation is,” she says.

“Try the three Cs approach:
• Community. Recognize the role you play in your local community and show up to be visible in your community.
• Communication. Communicate frequently, be human, and be transparent. Keep staff and patients informed.”
• Crowdsource. There are opportunities out there, and you don’t have to come up with all of them yourself. Reach out to your network and ask for help.”

“By doing so, you will be setting yourself up for a positive surge in patients and business.”

“Think about the next six months, the next year, the next five years.”

“Now is the time to think about possibilities, such as changing the care you deliver or how you deliver it.”

“There is an opportunity to elevate optometry in the healthcare system.”

“Build a plan to achieve your goals.”

“Remember that you are not alone in this. We will rebound together as an industry. All companies stand ready to support doctors.”

Related: How telemedicine can offer enhanced patient benefits

PART TWO
Dr. Gerber kicked off the second night of the virtual town hall with information about next week’s Power Hour radio show.

He asks listeners to call in to share the single best strategy they have used so far or what they plan to use when they reopen.

“The best new normal that will come out of this will be the sharing that we started yesterday, and that sharing will be the rocket fuel that drives our recovery,” he says. “Now is the time to start planning because we will bounce back.”

Tonight’s town hall is about changing targets, painting bulls-eyes, and preparing for practice success post-COVID-19.

Related: Why practice owners should create a simple business budget

Part two’s panelists include:
• Sergio Duplan, president for United States and Canada at Alcon
• John Ferris, vice president and general manager of vision care at Bausch + Lomb
• David Friedfeld, president of ClearVision Optical
• Alessandro Baronti, president for North America of De Rigo REM
• Lukas Ruecker, president of Eyemed Vision Care
• Howard Purcell, OD, FAAO, president and CEO of New England College of Optometry
• Tony Sommer, senior VP of sales and marketing at Visioneering Technologies, Inc.
• Marty Bassett, CEO of Walman Optical

Tony Sommer
“Communication is key,” he says. “It’s all about your brand.”

“Don’t be a stranger to your patients. Use social media and outbound communications to communicate with them so the next time you talk to them is not the first time you’re talking to them.”

Related: 5 marketing tips to grow a practice without breaking the bank

“There are two types of communication:
• Transactional. This is communication about the routine dispense or ordered product. How to pick it up, when, etc.
• Brand building. It’s important that you put your office into the minds of your patients. It’s cluttered out there…everyone is marketing to these folks especially as you start to get word that you might get close to opening.”

“Brand building communication doesn’t need to be purely medical. It can be:
• Slice of life to show what you and your staff are doing.
• Fun facts about optometry or non optometry; puzzles, tips, tricks. Anything to keep your brand in front of your patients.”

“You should be putting out two to four pices of content per day. It might seem like a stretch, but think about all you’re currently doing on Facebook or Instagram already. You’re trying to reach 10 to 20 percent of your patient base.”

“Overcommunicate. Do not be a stranger to your patients.”

“For your reopening strategy, the first part is pregame. The second part is game day.”

Related: Why it’s important to have a marketing plan

“In pregame, as you get word that you might reopen, now is the time to mine your EMR. Drill down on patients who are due refills on medications, to order contact lenses, or to receive specific dry eye treatments. Look for routine treatments that brought people into your office. This is within two weeks of when you think you will open.”

“For game day, think of the excitement of when you opened your practice the first time or when you became part of that practice. This is a grand opening.”

“Make it family friendly. The kids are out of school right now and throughout the summer, most likely. Consider that it is June or December again in your practice. Think about everyone bringing in kids for routine stuff.”

“Create a hook beyond routine eye care. It could be blue-light lens education, myopia management education, or dry eye. The topics are endless. Tailor it to your interests and your staff’s skills as well as your area.”

“Think about a festive look and feel. Remember, you’re opening for the first time. It’s already clean, so make it look festive.”

“There will be changes in how we do business as a population. Keep in mind that social distance may still be happening at that time. For contact lens dispense and glasses pick up, consider setting up a table outside so people don’t need to come into a crowded office.”

“Have a very aggressive thank-you campaign with a bounceback offer to whoever came in. Make sure that you include it on your social media channels and preferred patient channels plus put it in the bag when patients pick up materials.”

Related: Artificial intelligence might be the future of practice management

Howard Purcell, OD, FAAO
Dr. Purcell offers ODs 10 helpful things to do.

1. “What you do now matters. We have to start now with planning, looking at all the different ways to address things. What you do now will have a big impact on how things go when patients do come back.”
2. “Be the source of education. There are so many questions patients have about tears as a source of the virus or safe contact lens wear. Be that source of education and information. If you become that source, your patients will continue to look to you for that.”
3. “You can’t abandon your patients. You have to close your doors, but you have options. Telehealth is one of them. We are about a week into it, and we are primarliy using it as triage. I’m not suggesting performing comprehensive eye exams on telehealth but to triage and identify those people who really do need our help. Be prepared to come to the office to see them. We need to keep our patients out of the hospitals. If patients have emergences that optometrists can take care of, we need to do that. It helps in so many different ways.”
4. “Be human. Tell your story to your patients on your website or in your newsletters. Patients like to know that you’re going through the same things they are, and it’s a nice way to bond.”
5. “Acknowledge the situation. We are all watching more TV than before, and when you see an ad come up now that doesn’t address the situation, it feels uncomfortable. We have to address it.”
6. “Encourage industry colleagues to have sessions with their doctors on marketing. You have so much expertise.”
7. “Be OK with change on the fly. Be OK with saying something today, but tomorrow it may be a little different. We know more today than we did yesterday. Whatever plan you go into, be OK with changing it. If you’re not, it’s going to be really frustrating.”
8. “Take advantage of company offers. It’s an opportune moment if you can.”
9. “Expand your hours. You’re going to have to separate your visits due to social distancing, and it may mean that you need longer hours in order to see the same number of patients. Hopefully it will be for a finite time, but it’s important to do. It demonstrates to your patients your understanding of it.”
10. “Be clear and loud about how you are protecting your staff and your patients who will come to see you in the office. Everybody is going to be interested in that.”

“We market differently in tough times vs. good times. In good times, it’s about what’s easy-desire and leadership. In tougher times, it’s about comfort and affirmation.”

Related: Why you should upgrade technology for contact lens patients

Marty Bassett
“The day you start planning to reopen is right now,” he says. “Don’t cancel appointments-reschedule them. You want to start with a full appointment book.”

“Give people a reason to come in, such as trunk shows or special promotions. If you have technology like OCT where you already have a fixed cost, for a short time provide that technology for no additional cost.”

“Expand price points inside the practice. Don’t just think about your current traffic. People will be at different places on the other side of this.”

“Think about your practice a bit differently.”

“We are seeing concern about patients losing benefits. You might see an influx at the front end of people wanting to use benefits before they lose them.”

“Look at alliances and buying groups. Those organizations have turnkey programs that for a moderate investment can have dramatic results. You might be overwhlemed with other things when you open up. For an investment of $800 to $1200 a month, someone can manage your social media or put together mailers or other progams.”

Related: Consider outsourcing opportunities in your practice

Sergio Duplan
“I am optimistic for two reasons,” he says. “The first one is that this will pass. The second one is that we are so fortunate to live in a country like the U.S. In a crisis like this is a good time to remember that.”

He offers three specific recommendations:
• “Cash is the most important thing to focus on during a crisis. Have at least a three-month cash flow projection. Make sure you’ll have enough cash to operate. The plan you put together will be wrong, but having that baseline helps you to track reality based on the plan.”
• “Look at your expense base. All the nice-to-haves must be gone. Focus on what is urgent and important. Do this not only for your cash but for your energy.”
• “There is enough cash out there. The stimulus plan will help. Access the Small Business Association site to make sure you can get it.”
• “You’ll manage everything only with a strong team. Evaluate your A players who will help you when you come back. Make sure you talk with them. Get them engaged because you are going to need them.”
• “It’s always better and cheaper to keep your existing customers than finding new ones. Stay in touch with your patient base. If you have the time, pick up the phone and call them, at least the ones scheduled to come in first. That personal touch makes a difference.”

Lukas Ruecker
“To come of this right, you have to do everything right,” he says.

“Use the downtime now wisely. Don’t lose time tracking the latest data on social media, but stay on top of regulations. Pick the patients you want to go after.”

“The sooner you take care of administration tasks like staffing and paperwork, the easier opening will be.”

“I would overinvest in resources early on. We don’t know how it will go at the beginning. You have the opportunity to create a fantastic patient experience. There is no better chance at making a good first impression than after this pandemic. Tell patients to share their experience with friends and family.”

“Paperwork is secondary. You can do that after hours or on the weekends. Your first focus should be on the patient experience.”

“Please take time to tell insurance carriers that you are back in business. Tell us if you’re still seeing patients now. What hours are you open, what services do you provide…tell us so patients needing care now will know.”

John Ferris
“If we fight like hell for our businesses, our patients, and our employees, we’ll be better than if we don’t,” he says. “We can do this.”

“You’re not alone in this. A lot of stakeholders want to see you succeed. Congress came through with a huge stimulus. Doctor alliance groups are waiving fees. The AOA is waiving dues. People are stepping up to help you manage your cash flow.”

“Remember what you have accomplished and proven yourself to be successful. You have an education and a skill set that is needed. You had resiliency to get through school and open a practice. You have what it takes to get through a restart.”

“Have a vision for your restart. Be pragmatic in your expectations. It may take a while for everything to get back to what it was, if it does. It might not be the same practice you had before. Be realistic. You’ll have busy days and slow days.”

“It will be stressful, so have a plan for that. Find time for your stress relivers. Running, sleeping in, spending time with family. Don’t compromise on that. We all make better decisions when we aren’t stressed out. Make that time for yourself for your own physical and emotional health so you’re operating at your best to help others.”

“Don’t try to do everything. Have a straightforward plan. Think back to what made you successful in the first place, and focus on that.”

“What do you have to do for the next 30, 60, and 90 days for your restart and let everything else go. Somethings that were important three weeks ago aren’t important now.”

“Your restart starts now. Don’t let time get away from you. Manage your cash flow. You don’t want to burn it now when you might need it at restart. You need cash to be able to deploy, to pay your staff, to market.”

“There are urgent needs that people have in order to avoid going to the hospital. Stay open for limited hours if you can, staying within regulations in your state and what you are comfortable with. It’s needed in your community, and your patients will remember you were there and a leader in your community. To the extent that you can, be there for them.”

“This is an essential business. It won’t change in a post coronavirus world. That demand will still be there. It’s not like an airline…that demand may not be there. If you can get to the other side, you will have demand.”

“It won’t be easy, but things that matter never are.”

“The numbers are against you. That’s when you have to turn to your own creativity and that of your people. There will be a struggle for all of you to keep all of your staff. There won’t be that many places for them to go, so many will be waiting for you. Tap into that. Keep on the payroll those people who helps you brainstorm ideas. Are any willing to help now without pay in order to keep the business going with a job on the other side? If you lay someone off, she likely won’t be able to find a job tomorrow. Try and keep her on board to keep your practice running with the knowledge that when times get better, you will be her home.

Related: How to build a myopia control practice

David Friedfeld
“I believe that the industry will rally,” he says, “but I believe it will be a long and difficult road.”

“Work on the we, not the me.”

“As a frame guy, I should be saying, ‘Buy frames.’ Most people have too many frames to begin with, so we should be lean.”

“Frame board and space planning are important. Price points will be lower, so be mindful of how you stock your board. Don’t inventory the same frame hundreds of times. Focus on margin and profit on the product.”

“Understand managed vision care in order to price properly. Making $6 or losing $2 on a frame can make a difference. In your downtime, learn about managed vision care and how to price your products.”

“Make sure understock is used before you buy new. Some doctors may buy too much. Sell off the board, then restock. Restock your best sellers.”

“There will not be any supply problems. There is more supply in China and Italy that could last for six months. A lot of frame companies are holding onto product right now, but there will not be a shortage. We have plenty of frames.”

“Stay in touch with your customers via social media and email. There will be a pent-up demand.”

“The concept of social distance will be changing how we do business for at least the next year. Work with individuals around the hours they want.”

“This month, we will lose about six million frames. The business will be there, but the question is how we get the customer back. I’d love to see managed vision care step up to help bring patients back in.”

“I don’t have the answers for everybody, but it’s important that we recognize that when we come back, things will be different. Some doctors are talking about combining practices.”

What will take us through this is the ingenious nature of the American spirit working together as an industry.”

Alessandro Baronti
“We are small business, so my problems are the same problems that the doctors have and we are facing the same issue,” he says.

“Do not underestimate the power of our industry. We are an incredible combination of a healthcare industry with retail components. We know that health care will come back stronger and sooner, and we know that retail will follow and will struggle, but for us it is going to be different because we are a combination of both.”

“The number-one thing right now is that you need to take care of your people because without your people, you’re not going to have a business.”

“Right now is not the moment to buy things. Right now is the moment to strategize.”

“Now is the time to think on how will wow your patient the day that you are going to reopen your practice.”

“Think about social distance when considering how you are going to structure your patient flow as you open your practice.”

“Consider implementing an omni-channel experience.”

Bart Foster
Bart Foster, founder and managing director of Sanitas Advisors, closed the town hall with suggestions on how business leader panelists could help ODs succeed.

He suggested this happen in two phases.

“In the first phase, we need to give eyecare practitioners the practical advice they need, such as legal, tax, financial, and mental health,” he says. “Practitioners don’t have these tools and they need to have them.”

He proposed conducting video conferences or conference calls.

Phase two goes beyoond 2020, he says.

“Let’s pull a tiger team together of eight or 10 kickass people, resources from the biggest companies, to develop programs to help doctors get back on their feet,” he says. “Practitioners don’t have the time to go figure this stuff out. Like telemedicine, online stores, marketing, all of it.”

He also proposed companies follow Google’s example of loaning a star employee to this program.

“It’s not what tools we make available but how we implement them,” he says.

Related: Companies offer CE, other resources amid coronavirus pandemic