Offering creative payment options good for business

Carol Patton

When patients cannot pay their optometrist, they will often avoid care to avoid embarrassment. Optometrists can help these patients get the care they need and keep their business by offering a variety of payment methods.

Key Points

Carole Burns, OD, FCOVD, has been practicing optometry for 25 years. Early in her career, she discovered that less than 2% of her patients had difficulty paying for eye-care services and products. Worse yet, if they had an outstanding bill, they were too embarrassed to return, and often sought the services of her competitors. To avoid losing patients and ensure they receive appropriate care, she began allowing some to pay over time.

"Cash, credit card, and check are the three main forms of payment we prefer," she said. "They're the ones we always start off with but, unfortunately, during this economy, we are finding that patients need more creative ways."

The rest of the seminar is devoted to payment plans. For example, although it is infrequent, her staff will set up PayPal accounts for patients who wish to purchase eyewear but are not carrying any cash, checks, or credit cards. Since people have grown accustomed to purchasing goods and services via their computer, she said this is an effective alternative, especially for younger patients. Her practice is paid in full and the patient doesn't need to return with cash, a check, or a money order.

"Patients are intrigued that we offer it," she said.

Likewise, not all optometrists use outside credit agencies, such as CareCredit, a popular medical credit program. It only takes several minutes to set up a patient account that offers numerous benefits, Dr. Burns said. CareCredit usually offers free financing, anywhere from 3 to 12 months, for patients who make minimum monthly payments and pay off their balance within the allotted time. Otherwise, they end up paying retroactive finance charges on their entire purchase, usually around 12%. Optometrists pay an upfront fee-9.9% of each purchase-to CareCredit for using its service.

Other payment alternatives:

"We don't want to find ourselves in the lending industry," she said. "We only offer this option to patients who say, 'I can't pay.' "

For instance, her practice routinely works with county-funded programs and organizations such as the Lions Club.

Although not a payment option, she said that discounting for bundled or multiple eyewear products also can help some patients better afford them.

She compared it with buying items in bulk, which may appeal to large families or patients who want to purchase several, high-quality products at one time.

Many of the optometrists who attend her seminars are excited to learn about these alternatives, she said.

They've all had patients who needed care, but were at a loss as to how to help them.

"We have an office policy that says no patient will go without care because of finances," Dr. Burns said, adding that at the very least, practices need to offer external financing options. "While we are medical specialists first, it also is our responsibility to ensure that patients who need care, receive care."