Industry profile

Providing the best solutions for patients

Russell Bickle, general manager for Shamir UK, on the effects of COVID-19 and the key areas of opportunity for practices to engage patients

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Adapting to the changes and restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has had knock-on effects for the way practices operate, and the way consumers behave.

Suppliers have sought to deliver solutions to help practices maintain social distancing, where possible, and to safely reduce time spent in the confines of the test room - whether instruments for diagnosis, or to support patients in the selection and fitting of frames.

To find out more about some of the key changes that practices have faced over the past year and the possibilities for further adaptation, OT spoke with Russell Bickle, recently appointed general manager for Shamir UK.

Russ Beard
Russell Bickle, general manager of Shamir UK

The effects of COVID-19 across the industry have been really varied as time has gone on and restrictions have changed.

It has been very interesting to see the resilience of the industry. During the first three months of the pandemic, eye care practitioners (ECPs) quickly moved to protect their staff and many operated on a reduced emergency-only cover. This of course led to a dramatic reduction in orders across the UK and across Europe. As we progressed into the summer and cases declined, there was a huge surge across the industry and both the quality and volume of orders were, in fact, above the 2019 level.

As a supplier, the huge increase in volume whilst also dealing with a reduction in staffing caused by COVID-19 working restrictions led to our manufacturing hubs working in new ways with labs across the globe supporting each other.

Issues surrounding mask use and lens fogging became quickly apparent, so Shamir responded by donating over 1000 pairs of safety eyewear with our anti-fog coating to NHS and care home staff. We also increased the production of our anti-fog lens coating, Glacier Plus Anti-fog, and offered all ECPs a 50% discount on any lenses coated with it for themselves.

It has been truly uplifting to see the way our customers have risen to the challenge of providing care during these testing times. I have lost track of the number of stories of ECPs going above and beyond, be that with home delivery, out of hours triage, or fast delivery to key workers.

We have seen that both patients and practitioners are keen to be as safe as possible, increasing the demand for digital measuring systems such as Spark Mi Up, which allows you to be up to three metres from the unit.

We have also seen an increase in ECPs looking at innovative testing, measuring and diagnostic equipment that enables further distancing and less time needed in the confines of the test room. We were made aware of these needs when asked to help support such purchases.

One of the biggest changes in consumer behaviours we have seen is that patients are willing to have better visual solutions than before, be that with higher quality, varifocals, or an indoor pair of frames with blue light reduction technology.

I think it is key that ECPs react to this increased emphasis on personal care and are not afraid to offer the best visual solution to patients.

One of the biggest things we have seen through our research is the huge increase in blue light protection searches online, with Google Trends indicating a real spike in searches for this alongside the spikes in COVID-19. We believe this is due to increased screen-time brought about as a result of the pandemic restrictions. People working from home for longer periods are noticing eye strain and are looking for solutions.

ECPs are in a great position to educate patients on the available options. We saw orders for Blue Zero increase as a percentage of our total lens mix in quarters three and four, as the market returned and ECPs looked to offer solutions to increasing consumer demand. Many of these customers can be reached via social media. We have seen several practices offering advice on looking away from screens and eye care advice, but perhaps they sometimes miss the opportunity to inform potential customers of the solutions they can also offer.

The importance of optometry in primary healthcare is still almost unknown by many outside of the profession and it is one area where messaging really does need to be co-ordinated. I think some practices do a fantastic job of promoting the extra services they can provide to patients and clinical commissioning groups, but there is still a vast number of services that the public are not aware of. I think it will become more important to pursue these avenues of patient care for both NHS and private patients in a post-pandemic world, when both healthcare and the efficient use of public money will be in greater focus.

Whilst online sales are seen by some as a threat, I personally think that it can represent a great opportunity.

Shamir Porto Lab
Shamir Porto Lab
I think it is important to separate online from a price point of view, and online from a service point of view. By leveraging the advantages of online for customers who are wanting to browse your ranges online and get an idea of your prices, then I think having a strong online presence and perhaps even a web shop can be a real help.

We have seen that many practices have managed to increase average sale value recently by having more time to discuss needs with patients and offer them better solutions due to reduced volumes caused by the pandemic.

I know of one practice that saw three new customers in one week; all of them had seen frames in the practice’s online shop and wanted to visit for the expert fitting and advice of the ECP. Without that strong online offering, would they have purchased elsewhere?

At Shamir, we support our customers by providing online training sessions for staff to enable them to know how to best match their patients' needs to quality products and innovation. We are also helping practices with videos and content for their online platforms to increase the effectiveness of these platforms. Furthermore, we are helping practices with requests for equipment purchasing right through to helping with expansion from some forward-thinking businesses.

If I could share a message with practices I would say: be proud of what you do and the products you offer.

By delivering quality testing at a sustainable cost and offering innovative products that address patients' needs, you can have a very successful business and be part of your local High Street at a time when support for local business has never been higher in the public’s mind.