L&T: Equipment Quarterly


Are You Experienced?

Are You Experienced?

The Keys to Staffing an In-Office Lab

by Linda Craig Little

They wouldn’t change a thing. That’s what managers at most dispensaries with successfully installed in-office lens processing facilities say.

“When you have a private practice, keeping one patient from going somewhere else to get their glasses is worth it,” explains Dan Conran, lab manager at Plano Eye Associates in Plano, Texas. “When we installed our lab, the volume of retail sales from optical doubled overnight. I would recommend it to any doctor who has enough volume and patient base.”

“We can serve our patients much better,” adds Edie Hassan, office director for the practice of Ed Elliott, OD, in Modesto, Calif. “Our lab gives us an edge over other offices that do not have the same service.”

But as these and other dispensers have discovered, installing an in-office laboratory isn’t as easy as buying and setting up equipment. It’s absolutely essential to hire the right people to operate it, maintain it and manage it. According to the 20/20 In-Office Equipment MarketPulse 2001, 40.4 percent of dispensers surveyed cite staffing considerations and 34.6 percent cite staff training time as key factors in their decision not to install in-office finishing or finishing and surfacing lab. Similarly, 82.9 percent said “ease of operation” was a very important factor when purchasing a specific brand of equipment. Indeed, staffing, staff training and equipment operation are all critical considerations when determining if an in-office laboratory is right for your practice. So what do you need to know to avoid any potential pitfalls?

In general, most dispensaries installing in-office labs begin operations with a knowledgeable, experienced technician. According to Jerry Thornhill, lab manager for OSA Optical Shops in Aliso Viejo, Calif., “If you don’t hire experienced staff, the doctor has to be able to run the equipment and do the training.” Of course, adding laboratory operations to the doctor’s workload doesn’t allow the lab operation to run full time. It also keeps the doctor from seeing patients. In addition, utilizing dispensing staff is not an ideal staffing solution, unless the dispensing employee has edging and/or surfacing experience and is nowledgeable in processing lenses. Two dispensaries interviewed for this story did begin with experienced dispensers running their labs. They quickly moved them into full-time lab operator positions, however, when their facilities’ volume grew to 10 to 15 jobs per day.

Finding experienced lab technicians can be accomplished through placing newspaper classified ads, seeking word-of-mouth referrals or by asking suppliers’ reps for recommendations. “I rely on recommendations from manufacturer representatives,” notes Conran. “They know who is out there in the market and who is looking as well as who is good.”  Utilizing this valuable network, dispensers add, reduces the concern all employers face: adding a completely unknown person, particularly for a new operation.

When considering a candidate for hire in the lab, ask to see examples of their work. “Follow up on references and have candidates run a couple jobs for you before you hire them,” notes Thornhill. “Check the quality of the work. What is acceptable at one place may not be acceptable for you.”

New employees should also be hired on a three-month probationary period. “See what the person can do first, then pay what they are worth,” says Shawn Wilson, lab manager at Macy’s Vision Express (Howard Freed, OD) in New York City. Once hired, an experienced technician can earn $10 to $15 per hour. Most dispensers suggest offering lab techs the same benefits as their dispensing staff.

As the lab expands and the volume of work grows, dispensaries may want to look into hiring a part-time lab assistant. This may be necessary once a full-service (finishing and surfacing) lab starts processing more than 20 to 30 jobs per day. This person can be much less experienced than the full-time tech because he is there only to assist in basic tasks, giving the lab tech more flexibility and allowing him to maintain the service level.

“We’re on the cusp of needing additional help,” says Hassan, “But our next person can be inexperienced and trained by our lab manager. This will still decrease our turnaround time for lenses, but without adding a lot of cost.” Usually, in-office labs are managed by a dispensary’s office manager. But, once they grow in volume, the lead lab tech or lab manager handles the duties. For an in-office lab processing 15 to 20 jobs per day, for example, it is common to find a lab manager who is responsible for overseeing the work process, training techs, scheduling work and inspecting for quality and ordering supplies and lenses, while a tech performs the processing work. An average lab manager is a very experienced technical person with a starting salary of an experienced technician. For in-office laboratories processing 40 to 50 jobs per day, an official “lab manager” runs the lab, usually earning a salary range in the  $12.50 to $18 per hour range.

Hiring experienced technicians reduces the training required to operate an in-office lab and those with specific equipment experience are even better. When you hire someone with experience, a new lab operation will be up and running in one to three days.

“It really reduces the learning curve when you hire someone who has experience on the equipment you have,” says Wilson. “I also think it is better if someone has taken an ‘ophthalmics’ course and understands how to process a lens and why.” Each piece of equipment has different operating procedures, requirements and maintenance issues.

Once the operation has an experienced technician, hiring inexperienced people is easier. “Today’s equipment offers the most user-friendly technology ever available on the market,” says Conran. “It’s easy to have your experienced people train someone who doesn’t have experience with hands-on training. Since I have the experience, I can oversee quality and train someone new.”

In addition, all equipment manufacturers offer training during the installation process. However, most dispensers say they don’t rely on this service when training their people because, some say, it’s not “complete enough” to prepare staff to actually process lenses in the field. Equipment manufacturers’ training, for instance, does not usually include the hows and whys of optics, lens processing or material differences.

“Often the installers do not have an optical background but do know how the equipment operates,” explains Thornhill. “They can train on the basics of machine operation and lenses that are easy to run.” In training their lab staff, dispensers begin with fundamentals such as using a lensometer and blocking lenses before moving to surfacing and edging (most labs start new techs on the latter).
Technicians should also know and understand the importance of following equipment maintenance and upkeep procedures before getting immersed in lab operations. Maintenance and upkeep as well as small repairs, parts replacements and basic troubleshooting should be part of the tech’s responsibility. Following these general guidelines can help you begin the process of staffing your new—or newly expanded—in-office lab. It’s important, however, to develop your own criteria and protocols in this highly important area. As with any business, a dispensary’s best resource is its people.

new equipment

GERBER COBURN ENHANCES KAPPA Gerber Coburn has introduced the Kappa SP, the latest enhancement to its Kappa line of finishing products. The Kappa SP has all the features of its predecessor, the Kappa XL—all-material edging, OMA communication capability, three different groove widths, edge polishing, six automatic and controlled bevel options—plus several new features, including state-of-the-art 4-D tracing software and a patented, soft pin beveling feature.

BREITFELD & SCHLIEKERT INTROS ULTRASONIC CLEANER Breitfeld & Schliekert has released the Optisonic Ultrasonic Cleaner. The cleaner features intuitive controls, a timer with automatic shut-off and a high-contrast, tilted display face. With a hinged cover, this compact and clean design takes up less space and complements most decors, according to the company.

OMS MICRO-TINT WORKS WITH POLY Because of its hard coating, polycarbonate lenses have always been difficult to tint. Now, however, through the cooperation of polycarbonate lensmaker Oracle, tint manufacturer OMS has been able to tint stock polycarbonate lenses to any color, shade or transmission level using its new patent- pending tinting technology: OMS Micro-Tints. According to OMS, tints of below 10 percent transmission can be achieved in 12 to 14 minutes of tinting time.

GERBER COBURN RELEASES NEW GENERATOR Gerber Coburn has launched the IQ SL2 Express surface generator, an upgrade to its SL2 system designed to reduce the amount of time required to surface conventional and high-index plastic lenses by more than 33 percent, according to the company.  The generator is available in two formats: as a software upgrade package to the current SL2 that customers can order and easily install themselves or as a new machine.

WESTERN INTROS NEW BENCH KIT Western Optical Supply has introduced a new Bench Anvil Kit. According to the company, the kit offers an angled, comfortable surface. In addition, the “third hand” feature of the Bench Anvil Kit includes three nut wrenches, one phillips/flat screwdriver blade, riveting and cupping points, and solid anvil.