Modern life creates specialists. It is no longer common to find walking among us the “jack of all trades.” Whether sitting behind a desk, standing behind a cash register or looking through a lens, each of us has that thing we do best, that thing others look for us to do—our specialty.

Modern life also forces us to be competitive. Specialties overlap and people are territorial. It’s not always easy to come together for the common good.

But in the small town of El Dorado, Ark., a couple of ODs and a couple of MDs—along with a team of opticians and support staff—are doing just that. Where once there were two eye clinics, now there is one. “We were looking for a way to bring the three Os together to better serve the eyecare patient,” says Scott Simpson, OD, who along with his partner Marc Parnell, OD and two ophthalmologists, John Williamson, MD and Ivory Kinslow, MD, formed the South Arkansas Eye Clinic in January of 2000.

With 14,000 square feet, 16 refracting lanes, state-of-the-art equipment and a 1,400-squarefoot dispensary, South Arkansas Eye Clinic is a model of efficiency—a veritable one-stop-shop for eyecare needs. “We’ve all benefited from the economies of scale and in having everything here under one roof,” says Dr. Williamson.

Certainly the initial move was to better serve their patients, but what the eyecare professionals here have found is that each has been freed to focus on the thing he or she does best. “This is a unique arrangement and it’s worked well,” adds Dr. Williamson. “I’m not sure we’re suggesting it would work for everyone, but for us, it’s just another way to practice and we’ve been successful with it. We wouldn’t change a thing.”

So successful, in fact, Dr. Simpson estimates that he and Dr. Parnell are seeing nearly twice as many patients as they were prior to the merger. “We have been able to take a step back from all the other tasks we were doing and focus on being clinicians. It’s made us better doctors. We can concentrate on the things we are good at and look for ways to improve our skills.”

Ask anyone on staff here who is in charge and they’ll tell you it’s the patient. This shared philosophy has gone a long way toward easing the merger along and ensuring that patients get the best possible care. According to Simpson, the MDs don’t do contacts and the ODs don’t do cataract surgery. “Aside from that, we let the patients decide which doctor they want to see. I think our patients get the best of everybody,” he adds. “I almost hate to use this word, but we each are able to concentrate on our specialty. And when you do whatever that is all day, every day, you are going to get very good at it.”

Dr. Williamson agrees, adding it is the personality of the people involved that determines whether things work well or not. “Fortunately,” he says, “our mix works well.”

The arrangement between the doctors is one of co-management. “One of the challenges,” says Dr. Williamson, “was in trying to arrange ownership interest in line with past productivity. The formula we came up with has worked very well over the last five years and only recently did we find the need to sit down and realign a bit, giving more to the ODs and a bit less to the MDs. The way we have it structured is that regardless of whether I make the dollar or someone else makes the dollar, we all benefit.”

With 30 employees and office hours five days a week from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., South Arkansas Eye Clinic is a word-of-mouth business. “We were naïve enough to believe that we could manage the dispensary with two opticians and one bench optician,” says Dr. Simpson. “We now have six opticians and are looking for a seventh. That’s how busy we are—and from the beginning, we didn’t expect that.”

Optician and dispensary manager Patti Ferris credits the two ODs and two MDs for the large volume. “When they merged these practices, I think they had no idea what the real potential was,” she says. “Already, just five years in, and we are stepping all over ourselves in the dispensary.”

Patient care extends into the retail side of the business as well. With a finishing lab on site, South Arkansas Eye Clinic is able to handle a fair share of repairs and detail work, something that helps set the clinic apart from local competitors. According to Ferris, the dispensary stocks a diverse range of frames to meet the needs of a patient base that runs the gamut from those on Medicare to those looking for high-end product. Ferris treats patients individually, taking the time to evaluate their needs and budget. “We have to have something here for every economic base,” she says. “We do a good job of that— taking care of people’s needs regardless of their price range—and I don’t think many patients are even aware of it.”

When it comes to lenses, Ferris believes in sourcing the best lens rather than simply relying on the offerings of one or two companies. “I think that’s something we do better than some of the other retailers around here. We look for the best lens product, regardless of who makes it.”

On the low end, a frame/single-vision lens combination averages $59; bifocals, $79. At the highend, Caviar frames sell for $600 (without lenses), but, says Ferris, most of the frames sell for around $140. “We do a good job of explaining to patients why some frames are more expensive than others,” she says. “I may pull down six options with prices that fall between $59 and $359. And then I’m able to talk about why some cost more. We never leave patients alone to pull things off the frameboards themselves.”

This attention to detail and desire to promote full-service vision care, has allowed South Arkansas Eye Clinic to foster a new model for the eyecare industry. “At one time, I would have said that Wal-Mart was our primary competition,” says Dr. Simpson. “They came in 1997 and built a superstore with a vision center. But they’ve had a lot of turnover and their attendance is sketchy. I feel confident that we’ve recaptured many times over the traffic we originally lost to Wal-Mart.”

A strong patient base, state-of-the-art equipment, dedicated staff and doctors at the top of their game are giving this vision care center the edge. Says Dr. Simpson, “We want everyone to walk away impressed with the personalized touch we provide and we want them to know that we are invested in their visual welfare.”