There continues to be much talk about the change of the past two years in Australian optics, in particular as it relates to the new era of competition in the consumer marketplace.
People are naturally averse to change and certainly many have been disturbed by the uncertainty that new competition can introduce.
That said, what is the alternative for our industry? It is competition in the marketplace that pushes us to continuously improve the service we provide; it is our desire to compete that pushes us to identify and promote whatever we see as the point of difference in our practices.
As professionals we all dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of best patient outcomes and, to provide those outcomes to as many people as possible, we must compete on a daily basis for patronage.
Technology a must
In my own practice, I believe passionately in bringing valid technological innovation to bear. OCT scanners, Retinal Cameras and Visual Field analysers et al are not simply gadgets, rather they represent advances in technology that help me to see more patients, provide a more scientific professional service and retain a very real sense of continuity of eye care between eye examinations. As technology advances further, I will invest more to underpin those best patient outcomes and to stay one step ahead of my competitors.
The equipment I employ in my practice is state-of-the-art and this is important from a patient perspective but it also has additional value; my ongoing investment in it also provides me with a competitive edge over many other practices, one of my points of difference.
We Must Improve
So my own view is that the competitive changes we are currently seeing in the optical landscape can do nothing but improve eyecare standards and professionalism across the market. A market with insufficient competition will result in poor customer service, poor retail experience, reduced product variety – all key elements of under-performance. By the same token, a market that sees new and vigorous competition introduced into it will quickly see visible steps taken to improve customer service, invest in the retail experience and re-visit product selection.
By any international measure, Australian optics has been over-priced and underperforming for many years as evidenced by the very low average eye re-examination cycle of around 3.5 years. This compares to other similar markets such as the U.K. of around 1.7 years. Coupled with this, our market growth has been stagnant as others have surged forward, with copious research studies showing that Australian consumers have almost come to accept that eyecare and quality prescription eyewear is just plain expensive.
Consumers have taken matters into their own hands and often dangerously, stretched out the period between eye examinations to reduce the costs associated with eyecare.
By any professional measure, that is not good news for the collective eye health of Australians.
Of course, the high retail price of lenses and frames is the main reason why consumers are choosing to wait longer between eye examinations. We know that Medicare provides for a free eye examination every two years, so that is not the limiting factor. The limiting factor has been a lack of competition and so the new competition we are now seeing across the marketplace is welcome because it makes the whole eyecare / eyewear process more affordable. As in other countries where price competition has increased, in Australia too the end result will be a reduction in the time between eye examinations.
Indeed, this should be the measure of accountability that we choose to live by that every practice should be looking to achieve. Our success in reducing the cycle should be the true measure of our professionalism.
On my travels around Australia, I see that we are ready to congratulate ourselves as a profession at conferences when really we have none or, at best, very little accountability as to our performance as primary eye care providers. One measure of professional competence we have currently is to sign-off the number of CPD points we must achieve annually. This certainly ensures that our conferences enjoy record attendances however the ignorant public is not assured of excellence in the consulting room because they do not know what standard to demand. It was only a few years ago that a well known corporate lobbied the government to deregulate the market so they could employ non-optometrists to refract, attempting to take advantage of this lack of knowledge.
My own belief is that we should save the self-congratulation until we can be certain that, practice by practice by practice, the average eye re-examination cycle is 2 years or less. This will happen in Australia and it will be driven by our natural, competitive instincts that have now been re-awoken. We are already seeing levels of advertising and promotion increasing, as well as investment in new equipment as practices seek to build their own credentials. We are seeing practices starting to compete in the form of lower prices and special offers that aim to offer true value to consumers.
Reducing the Cycle
Importantly, a critical outcome of this is that, as in other countries, this competitive marketplace will bring more customers into our practices, thereby reducing the examination cycle.
If this is the net result over the coming years, and I firmly believe it will be, then increased competition should be celebrated. The leaders in our industry are not those who denigrate change. The leaders are the every-day working professionals who, in the face of an insecure profession, step outside the known boundaries and generate success by striving for excellence. Their excellence will produce activity in others as they evolve their own practices to stay in touch with the new standards defined.
If the consumer is the winner then these every-day working professionals who seek change surely are the heroes of our profession.
Peter Larsen is managing director of Specsavers and an Optometrist. He owns the successful Specsavers Little Collins Street store in the City of Melbourne.