At A Glance
- Online purchases of contact lenses and spectacles have been a disruptive force in eye care.
Online refractions threaten to disrupt the eye care professions further.
It is up to eye care providers to find ways to make these technologies work for rather than against us.
Like most professions, optometry has seen the internet become an increasingly disruptive force. A simple internet connection provides a conduit for consumers and businesses alike to conduct business online. In what ways has this affected optometry? Most obviously through the sale of optical goods, such as contact lenses and eyeglasses, but also in opening up new options for the delivery of eye care and related services.
FIRST HINTS OF CHANGE
One of the early ways that the internet affected optometry was with the migration of contact lens sales from traditional optometric offices to online retailers. Thanks to competitive prices and convenience, the number of online sales continues to grow, taking market share away from office purchases. It’s often more convenient and less expensive to complete tasks online than in person. There’s no denying this, but that doesn’t mean we have to be completely edged out of contact lens sales by internet-based competition.
Optometrists can take a dual approach here by combining the services and experiences offered in our existing brick-and-mortar offices with a brick-and-click solution that will drive sales and lead to continued success by also selling contact lenses and eyeglasses online.
The online experience doesn’t begin and end with the fact that patients can purchase the same products online that we sell in our practices. We have seen online contact lens retailers shift from selling standard prescription contact lenses to marketing and selling their own brands of lenses. Companies such as Waldo, Aveo, Hubble, and 1-800 Contacts have achieved a level of technological savvy and expertise never before seen in the contact lens industry. For many of these companies, their direct-to-consumer approach relies heavily on social media, enticing our patients to purchase from them. Our patients are therefore choosing products based on marketing messages that are far removed from the doctor-patient partnership in care that they experience with their optometrists. The dangers of this are obvious and apparent.
Note: Although outside the scope of this article, it is worth mentioning that we have personally obtained contact lenses from several online contact lens companies without providing a valid prescription. These companies are out to sell contact lenses, not take care of patients by practicing up to a professional standard of care. Several companies even offer to renew and modify contact lens prescriptions through online examinations. Be forewarned, and be sure to educate patients about these risky practices.
The online sale of eyeglasses follows a similar story, with the success and popularity of optical retailers such as Zenni and Warby Parker confirming that consumers are clearly in favor of these disruptive means of obtaining products and services.
Digital disruption has affected the ways eye care products are sold. Contact lenses, because of their disposable nature and need for frequent replenishment, are ideally suited for an emerging service model based on a subscription. You can subscribe to get regular deliveries of cat food from Chewy.com and people food from Hello Fresh and multiple other menu delivery services. Why not contact lenses?
This trend is rapidly changing the online purchase model, from reordering a product when you need it to subscribing to a service and automatically getting it when you need it. By offering our own subscription-based services, perhaps optometrists can establish another anchor point in nurturing the patient-doctor relationship. If we’re lucky, maybe we can be a disruption to the business of the unscrupulous online companies that offer cheap contact lenses to patients without proper verification, rather than the other way around.
Now that the technology is available, patients are also seeking refractive and medical eye care services through apps and online options. Telemedicine, or the use of telecommunication and information technology to provide clinical health care from a distance, does not necessarily provide the same standard of care that an optometrist can provide during an in-person examination. Until the spectrum of online care is narrowed and better defined, and providers of telemedicine are held accountable, eye care providers need to be vocal and help our patients understand their options. Ideally, we should be involved in the development and incorporation of telemedicine technologies so that they can be held to the same high standards as in-person care.
Telemedicine can expand examination and screening opportunities, but it also can allow others outside the ophthalmic and optometric professions to enter the arena of refraction and ocular health screening. New technologies are making remote examinations easier, more accurate, and more streamlined. Once an issue is detected, there’s no telling who or what will be involved in the referral process, from primary care providers and pediatricians to a standalone kiosk in a mall.
At the same time, there is the clear possibility that artificial intelligence could begin to replace optometrists and ophthalmologists in the detection and management of many refractive and ocular health conditions, cutting us out of the process.
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
Ask yourself this: How easily can new technology replace the services you provide? Disruptors can be disconcerting, but this is not the first time optometry has seen drastic changes. Many thought that the autorefractor or LASIK were going to mean the end of the profession, but look where we are today!
Technological advancement is inevitable. Rather than fear disruptions and dwell on the possible demise of optometry, we should instead fully embrace and integrate new technologies into our practices for the betterment of our profession. Online contact lens and eyeglass sales can positively influence our patients, practice, and profession. It is up to us to find ways to use these services so that they preserve the doctor-patient relationship, rather than fracture it, and thereby maintain our standard of care and excellence.