The High Street is changing and diversification can be key to surviving in an evolving climate.
Optometrist Hazel Bough established HB Opticians on a small High Street in Darras Hall, Ponteland, on the outskirts of Newcastle, in 2006.
She set up the independent at a time when she observed that “universities were increasing their intake of optometry students and it seemed to be the perfect time to become an employer rather than an employee,” Ms Bough told OT.
Operating in a close-knit town, Ms Bough and director of operations at HB Opticians, Dr Michelle Latham, noticed early on that people in the local community would regularly venture out of town to access other healthcare services.
In 2009, the opticians decided to utilise spare clinical space and offer podiatry in practice. They opted for podiatry because “there is a similarity in the patient database, as well as the clinical and professional environments,” the pair explained.
Initially, a podiatrist worked alongside the business in the facility. However, when the opportunity arose to bring the service under the main business offering, the pair purchased the patient database and equipment and began offering the service under its own portfolio. “This was important to us as it enabled us to have full control of the service that was being provided,” Ms Bough said.
The business has since extended its offering into the beauty market also.
“Knowing that it has worked has given us the incentive to bring other healthcare services under our portfolio as we have a working model to base it upon”
Becoming multidisciplinaryAt a family optical practice in Cardiff, in 2002 when Damian Murray qualified as a podiatrist, he joined the family business.
The family business was an opticians that had been based in Cardiff for over 13 years and at the time purely offered optical services. Mr Murray brought a new skillset to the table and the opticians extended its services into podiatry.
“Optometry and podiatry have a natural crossover in service users, especially in the large older demographic of patients that make up a high percentage of our database,” Mr Murray explained. “For these reasons, when I qualified as a podiatrist, joining the business and extending our service offering under one roof seemed a sensible approach,” he added.
While Mr Murray admits that the initial move into developing a multidisciplinary business was one of circumstance rather than foresight, he highlighted that the business’ subsequent extension into a wide range of additional healthcare services has been an intentional one.
“Knowing that it has worked has given us the incentive to bring other healthcare services under our portfolio as we have a successful working model to base it upon,” he said.
Why offer moreTaking over the business, it was an ambition of Mr Murray’s to create a multidisciplinary healthcare hub where patients could access a range of healthcare services under one roof. This became a reality when the business moved into a new building three years ago.
“That is when a lot of things changed for us and we became much more multidisciplinary, taking over the space we required to be able provide all of the different services that we do now,” Mr Murray shared.
Today, Murray Healthcare offers optical, audiology, podiatry, chiropractic, physiotherapy aesthetics, weight management and mobility services.
“As we are already a trusted supplier for a patient who visits us for their eye care needs, for example, we automatically become the trusted supplier for their podiatry and beauty needs”
Discussing the benefits of offering additional healthcare services in one location, Mr Murray highlighted that it is convenient and familiar for the patient to be able to access all their healthcare needs in a “one-stop-shop.”
“It also means that patients do not waste their time in the wrong environment. If they find themselves with a physio but could really benefit from seeing a chiropractor we can book them an appointment with the right professional there and then,” he added.
The business benefits of offering additional healthcare services can also be financial as HB Opticians explained. “Podiatry and beauty services offer the business an almost passive income that is not reliant on me, as the sole optometrist, to be testing in practice,” Ms Bough explained.
The business has also found that during times that are traditionally quiet in optometry, such as July, August and December, footfall to its other services are boosted. “This helps keep cash-flow at a more constant higher level,” Dr Latham said.
While the optical arm of HB Opticians remains both the largest and most profitable segment of the business, Dr Latham emphasised how the regularity of visits by patients accessing podiatry and beauty benefits the business. “Podiatry and beauty customers visit us more frequently than our optical customers. People come for their feet every two to three months and for their nails weekly. Therefore, they are spending smaller amounts with us more frequently and this adds up over time,” Dr Latham said.
Patient potentialHB Opticians continues to grow year-on-year with minimal marketing or advertising. The pair identify the cross pollination of patients across its portfolio as contributing to this growth.
“As we are already a trusted supplier for a patient who visits us for their eye care needs, for example, we automatically become the trusted supplier for their podiatry and beauty needs. This applies across all of our services,” Ms Bough said.
“While a patient may initially visit us for one of the three services we offer, in the majority of cases, over time, we become their provider of choice for all three services,” the pair said, caveating it with: “This is reliant on providing an excellent customer service across the business.”
Patient retention is also a key benefit of operating a multidisciplinary business for Murray Healthcare.
Murray Healthcare has two types of patients. The first, Mr Murray explained, likes to access their opticians, podiatrist and physio with different businesses. The second will visit the provider because they like the familiarity and convenience of accessing their healthcare in one location.
Expanding on this, Mr Murray said: “We find that having more than one service does lead to crossover and while some people will initially only use us for one service, we tend to find that after a second or third appointment, they will find it more convenient to switch and come over to us for another service too.”
“It has to be done so it doesn’t dumb down your service – you don’t want your patients thinking that their optician has introduced a new service as they need business”
Lessons learnedMs Bough and Dr Latham highlighted that practices considering venturing down the multidisciplinary route should consider their patient base and space carefully.
“You have to keep the clinical areas distinctly clinical so there are no misconceptions,” the pair said, adding: “While it works for our clientele, it will not work for everyone.”
The pair also encouraged business owners to know their own limitations and knowledge. “And be prepared to learn from the specialists that you hire,” they said.
Similarly, Mr Murray cautioned: “It has to be done so it doesn’t dumb down your service – you don’t want your patients thinking that their opticians has introduced a new service as they need business. You want the public to feel that the new service has been added in order to enhance the offering.”
Mr Murray highlighted: “Operating a multidisciplinary healthcare environment fits in with the way that the NHS is evolving in that it is more common for a GP practice to house additional services such as pharmacy or even optometry and podiatry.”
On the positive side, offering patients access to additional healthcare services has increased HB Opticians’ presence in a small community, enabling it to build closer and stronger relationships with its patients making retention second to none.
“The optical industry is changing and diversifying is one way that can help you thrive,” Ms Bough concluded.