Using the Internet to spread the word
on vision therapy
by Michelle Paollilo
For Rachel Cooper, vision therapy is a very personal issue. As a child she was diagnosed with “lazy eye” and, like many people with that affliction in those days, given a pair of glasses and told there was nothing more that could be done to fix the problem.
“Growing up with a vision handicap changes the way people see you and how you see the world,” remembers Cooper. “I had a hard time living with my impairment. It affected my social life because I couldn’t have normal eye contact with people. When you have a deviating eye, people—even on a deep level—wonder what’s wrong? Why can’t this person look me in the eye? My [eye] problem was not that obvious, so people wouldn’t know that a vision problem was the reason I acted or reacted a certain way.”
For her and many others with similar vision conditions, the solution has been vision therapy or, what she calls, the “best-kept healthcare secret.” Optometric vision therapy, as defined by the American Optometric Association in their “Position Statement on Optometric Vision Therapy,” is “a treatment regimen to correct or improve specific dysfunctions of the vision system identified by standardized diagnostic criteria. It includes, but is not limited to, the treatment of strabismus, and other binocular vision or convergence dysfunctions, amblyopia, accommodation, ocular motor function and visual-perceptual-motor abilities.” Cooper first heard about it when she moved to New York in the early 1990s, but, unfortunately, the public as a whole knows very little about the treatment options available.
“It changed my life,” she says of her own experience with vision therapy. “I thought about how my life would have been totally different if I had this done earlier.”
Hoping to inform the public about the therapy that made such a difference in her adult life, Cooper published a book titled, “Magic Eye: How to See 3D.” “Remember those Magic Eye books? I wrote the only educational one with text,” she recalls. “It was a great way to expose the general public to this.”
So, she soon learned, is the Internet. A dot-com entrepreneur, Cooper started her first web site—www.vision3d.com—with the information she gleaned writing her book in 1996. Initially, she says, the idea behind the different web sites was to inform patients diagnosed with a vision disorder about their options. Conquering Internet search engines with many domain names—including www.lazyeye.com, www.visiontherapy.org and www.strabismus.org was easy because there was so little information about this topic on the web.
“When I started this project, I typed ‘vision therapy’ into the search engines and only got back two references,” notes Cooper. “I was aware of how people were using the Internet to find information they felt was out of their grasp or they weren’t getting through the usual avenues. So this was a good fit. When people find out they have a disease they are highly motivated to share their information with other people who have the same problem.”
Patients also want information at their fingertips and, on the Internet, they expect to get this information for free. A big challenge came in convincing optometrists specializing in vision therapy to agree to be a part of what Cooper envisioned as a referral directory for the public. Many of the doctors who Cooper made contact with didn’t even use computers. But Cooper’s business model makes everything easy for the doctor. Her member doctors pay a set fee for web site maintenance, marketing and public relations services, and Cooper’s network markets the doctors to prospective patients.
“The biggest problem with the doctors was getting them to agree to the directory,” notes Cooper. “It was too intangible for them to understand how it would work for them. Being in a directory sounds really boring. I was forced to start making web sites for them to show them the services they would be getting.”
Getting her income from the optometrist, Cooper doesn’t have to rely on banners ads and other advertising to make money. “I don’t have any ads or cookies on the sites,” she says. “I am looking for the lowest possible irritation factor. I am thinking of the parents with crappy computers trying to find information on their child’s newly diagnosed eye disease.”
Expansion beyond optometrists with this specialty is not in the cards for Cooper. Going into business for herself allows her the freedom to work with people and information that interests her. The goal is to keep the information out there and accessible to the public, and the Internet gives her the reach she needs to continue to spread the message.
“I think the most important point I have to make about why the network/system that I developed is successful is I am using the Internet for what it does best,” says Cooper. “Any area where people are going to want to be in control or where a lot of information and education is involved, the Internet is a good fit.”