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The Future of Optometry

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Disruptions from COVID-19 and other factors offer opportunities for eye care practices

Technology, the pandemic and other factors have caused major disruptions in many industries, and optometry is no exception. “Although the concept of disruption may have negative implications in some settings, it actually creates opportunities for eye care providers (ECPs) who are looking to strategically position their practices,” wrote Richard C. Edlow, OD, in his article, “The Future of Optometry in America.” A number of changes are affecting the eye care industry, he noted. “If managed properly, the effects of these changes can be positive for optometry, for ophthalmology, and, most important, for patients.”

Here are several factors that will influence the optometric profession over the next decade.


An aging population

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of optometrists will grow 9% from 2020 to 2030. Increasing demand for optometrists is due in part to an aging population that will require more care for age-related vision conditions, such as cataracts and macular degeneration. 


Increasing chronic disease rates

The number of people with chronic diseases has grown in recent years. More optometrists will be needed to diagnose, treat and monitor patients with vision-threatening chronic conditions such as diabetes. Many people don’t realize that an eye exam is a non-invasive way to look inside the body and detect nearly 300 diseases. Every year optometrists diagnose more than 400,000 patients with diabetic retinopathy who did not even know they had diabetes.

Certain eye conditions have increased during COVID-19, creating an opportunity for specialty practices.


Pandemic-related eye issues
 

Since the onset of COVID-19, certain conditions have become more prevalent. Myopia is a growing concern for young people, who have been spending more time indoors and on screens due to remote learning. Dry eye disease has also increased during the pandemic, which new research has a link to depression. Dry eye symptoms are worse in those with depression, which together with anxiety, rose 25% globally during the first year of the pandemic. 


The growth of specialty practices

The increase in myopia and dry eye will likely lead to a rise in specialty optometric practices focused on providing care to those patient populations, predicts Edlow, who compared it to the presence of orthodontic practices in dentistry. This “may draw a substantial number of providers away from routine refractive care,” he wrote. 


A shift toward virtual care

During COVID-19, eye doctors’ utilization of telehealth surpassed other providers, noted O.D. Paul Karpecki. Factors include increased reimbursements and patients who prefer the convenience of telemedicine. “Doctors like the efficiency it creates, and it generates new revenue streams and allows improved communications with archivable follow-up patient education,” wrote Karpecki. “Finally, telemedicine elevates the practice as being innovative and up to speed on technology.” Some practices have found success with the hybrid appointment model

Practices have had to pivot to different models to counteract low reimbursements from vision plans and competition from online retailers.


Low reimbursements from vision plans

According to the most recent VisionWatch report from the Vision Council, nearly 50% of the U.S. adult population had some type of managed vision care (MVC) coverage as of December 2021, a slight increase from 2020. MVC benefits were used in more than 76% of all adult eye exams and 60% of all frame purchases in 2021. The problem is that patients often expect their vision plan to cover everything, while doctors’ reimbursements are typically quite low. ECPs who get patients to think of their vision plan as a discount program rather than health insurance may see better results. Some practices have opted out of vision plans entirely, and some have adopted the concierge medicine model. 


Online competition

ECPs have been concerned about the threat of online eyewear retailers, and that concern only grew during COVID-19. Online sales of all eyewear increased during the pandemic, rising by 14% in 2021, according to VisionWatch. In 2020, 14% of eyeglass buyers purchased them online. Online contact lens sales spiked to 39% in April 2020 before leveling out at 19% by July 2020. To counteract this trend, our Rendia users have found the videos “Only Buy Contacts from Eye Care Provider” and “Why Buy a Year’s Supply (of contact lenses)” to be helpful embedded on their website, shared to social media and in emails to patients. 

Eye doctors know — and must educate patients — that websites can’t replace a relationship with a trusted health care provider. Spread the message to patients and the public that a comprehensive eye exam from a trained provider is key to their overall health.

“Fortunately, first-rate customer service, the not-so-secret weapon of the private practice model, should enable tomorrow’s optometric offices to maintain strong market shares,” wrote Edlow.

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