Navigating a pandemic: How COVID-19 turned the industry upside down

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By David Goldberg

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the eyecare industry hard.

Since clinics were forced to close in mid-March, 95 per cent of optometrists saw their revenues drop 75 to 80 per cent, according to data collected by the Ontario Association of Optometrists (OAO).

Now able to resume practicing, it’s anything but business as usual for clinicians across the province.

Strict physical distancing guidelines have reduced patient volumes by 50 per cent.

That means over the next 12 months, two million patients in Ontario alone won’t get the comprehensive eyecare exam they need and deserve.

The Ontario data provides a snapshot of the challenges facing the industry across Canada.

Dr. Sheldon Salaba, president of the Ontario Association of Optometrists, says optometrists in the province can’t reopen practices that have been financially devastated by COVID-19, only to provide OHIP-insured services at an even greater loss.

“If this happens, practices in both rural and urban communities will struggle to survive,” he says.

“It’s time for Ontario’s elected officials to open their eyes to a crisis that’s about to become painfully visible for all to see.”

Ontario’s health care providers have long had a tenuous relationship with the provincial government.

Dr. Salaba says the neglect goes back 30 years. 

“We are fighting not just for our survival, but for a long-term solution that protects patients and public health,” added Dr. Salaba. “We ask the government to come to the table with a commitment to succeed where previous governments failed. Either cover the true cost of eye exams or give optometrists more flexibility in our billings. Optometrists are ready to adapt to ensure Ontarians get the accessible and quality eye care they deserve.”

It’s the new reality of eye care professionals forced to shell out additional dollars for personal protective equipment and reduce the number of patients they can see until a vaccine is developed and administered to the public. Many experts agree that might not be for another couple years. 

“If the costs to deliver services are covered, optometrists would be in position to hire additional staff and resource extending hours to take additional load off of the eye care system. We want to build an eye care system that is fair and sustainable for our patients,” says Salaba.

Despite the harsh reality of life during the pandemic, some have been able to see a silver lining.

Michelle Skinner is an optician and owner of Cowna’s Optical in St. John’s, Nfld, and she believes the situation has turned out much brighter than anyone might have anticipated.

“Customers are loving having scheduled appointments and the ‘white glove’ service it affords. It has streamlined operations in that only the more serious customers are booking optical appointments. It has allowed more efficient time management and utilization of employees…the ‘drop in and browse’ days may be over.

But is that a bad thing?

Cases of COVID-19 in Canada are trending in the right direction for now, but Skinner knows a second wave is likely and she’s urging her colleagues in the industry to be prepared.

“As opticians, I feel we need to be innovative and creative in our approach to this new normal and from what I see happening around me, I think we are rising to this challenge magnificently.”

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