Optical buying groups and practice management consultancies emerged decades ago; primarily to support independent eyecare practices going it alone against corporate retailers. Large optical chains appeared to be a juggernaut for the independent ECP, with their power to bargain for lower prices through volume purchasing, and a breadth of marketing programs and services delivered through corporate channels.

As originally structured, optical buying groups and practice management consultancies had different objectives in assisting vision care practices. Buying groups primarily helped the independent practice improve cash flow by providing access to products and services at volume discounts. Practice management consultancies, on the other hand, helped enhance the overall value of the practice by resolving internal operational issues and positioning the practice to successfully meet external challenges.

Today these distinctions are not nearly as clear, as both types of groups have evolved and diversified over the years to offer a broader range of services to their clients. Let's take a brief look at these two key support services for practitioners.

Optical Buying Groups
Also called buying alliances and optical purchasing services, buying groups offer their members significant discounts on frames, contact lenses, instruments and other services purchased in volume by the group from various key vendors. The potential savings in product purchases enables group members to be more competitive in their product pricing if they choose to pass savings on to customers, or in their practice positioning if they opt to reinvest their savings in the practice—for instance, by enhancing staff salaries, or adding new services or technologies.

In addition, as a way to deliver more value to their customers, today's buying groups provide a range of supplemental support functions that enable practitioners to present a professional business operation while focusing the majority of their time on treating patients. Supplemental support can include such services as insurance claims processing, marketing and advertising support, managed care contracting, auditing and IT services, EMR and credentialing services, educational programs, and even practice management consulting services.

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits for buying group members is direct access to industry leaders and professionals through networking forums such as annual meetings, seminars and webinars. This level of access can provide valuable opportunities to learn both management and medical techniques from some of the best in the industry.

"In addition to lowering costs on materials and important services such as medical billing and professional education, Group Purchasing Organizations such as Primary Eyecare Network provide consolidated billing, specially negotiated rebates and no-fee memberships." says Mary Eastwood, OD, Director Marketing & Education, Primary Eyecare Network

Bottom line, it's important to understand what you're getting for the cost of membership. Savings can vary greatly by group, and you'll want to understand exactly what your needs are before signing on the dotted line. Review the history of the organizations you're considering—including their contract structure, customer relations and culture—and conduct a cost/savings analysis to understand which buying group will be most beneficial for your practice.

Practice Management Groups
Practice management groups are consulting organizations that address the independent eyecare practice's internal operational issues, and help position the practice to meet external challenges. The consultant works with the practice owner and staff to improve efficiencies in professional services and product offerings. Through such initiatives as increased productivity, balanced fee schedules, staff cross-training, successful internal and external marketing programs, and optimization of inventory, practice management consultants can help the practice maximize quality of care as well as revenues.

But more than that, the best practice management consultants help practices develop effective leadership, so that the team has the proper skill set for generating productive outcomes that benefit patients, doctors, staff, and the practice as a whole.

One important way this is accomplished today is by helping optical practices successfully transition to a medical model, which is so critical for optimizing revenues under the Affordable Care Act. Such a transition can often require a significant restructuring of practice operations and team responsibilities. For example, to fully participate in the opportunities offered by the Affordable Care Act, eyecare practices need to incorporate electronic health records (EHR), advanced technology for treating patients medically, and a plan for transitioning the doctor role from tester, to diagnostician. Practice management consultancies are designed to help eyecare practitioners make such a transition.

No matter which type of group you're working with, be sure to do your homework and choose a buying group or practice management consultancy that is compatible with your practice culture and goals. That way, you'll know you have a true alliance with an organization that shares your vision and is structured to work for your long-term success.

Joan Hollywood Alten is a professional business writer covering health care, financial services and a range of business-to-business sectors for the past thirty years and is the owner of Joan Hollywood Communications. Joan has held positions as Communications Director, Marketing Director and Strategic Marketing Manager for global companies including SOLA International, Bank of America, and Banana Republic. She currently operates her own marketing communications business based in Northern California, providing strategic writing, content development, and program management services to a variety of optical, financial services, and winery clients. Joan is married with four grown children and eight grandchildren. She enjoys spending time with her husband and family, camping, boating, volunteering, and training and riding her Tennessee Walking Horse. Joan can be reached at [email protected].