Retaining patients after a practice sale

August 27, 2013

By Chad Fleming, O.D., AOAExcel Business and Career coach

The Philadelphia Eagles will have a new team this year under the leadership of coach Chip Kelly. Coach Kelly is known for running an offense in college that created high scores and many wins. It appears Coach Kelly will be implementing a similar model in professional football with hopes of having the success he had coaching in college.

There are many skeptics, and one will truly know his success by the number in the win column. One commentator discussed the camaraderie the new coach was creating in his efforts to “sell” the organization and, most importantly, the players on his philosophy of coaching and play calling.

Buying a practice is much like taking on a new coaching position. The previous coach built a team of patients based on some philosophy of patient care and business leadership. As leadership changes within the practice, patients will have to make a decision if they are going to buy in to the new culture and philosophy of patient care or if they are going to search elsewhere for eye care services.

Fortunately for those who think ahead and intentionally plan for the transition to ownership, retention rates as high as 90 to 95 percent are obtainable. But for those without a plan, retention rates may be as low as 50 percent or worse.

Here are a few ideas to put in your retention plan when transitioning patients to new ownership.

1. Letter—That is right: go old-school on your patients. Have the exiting doctor put a letter together outlining what is going to occur with the sale of his/her practice, why the practice is being sold, and why the exiting doctor recommends the patients stay with the practice. This would be best distributed in both hard copy letter form and an email.

2. Phone call—One of the highest retention rates I can speak of came from a senior doctor who literally called every one of his patients personally thanking them for trusting him with their eye care over the years and then recommending they see a specific doctor who would be most compatible to the patient in the multi-doctor practice. This took an extremely brilliant individual to not only see the impact of transitioning the patients in this way, but it allowed him to leave a legacy with not only the patients but the doctors.

3. Chairside handoff—This works well if the buyer and seller practice with each other for at least a year. This allows the seller to introduce his/her patients to the new doctor. The seller communicates trust and respect for the buyer and states that patients will be in good hands under the new ownership. There have been some cases where one doctor would do the refraction and another follow up with the slit lamp exam and conclusion of the exam. I do not personally recommend this method, but it has worked for some practices.

4. Acute care—Ideally the buyer and seller work together for at least a year and during that time all acute care goes to the buyer, which allows the buyer to develop a relationship with each patient who needs acute care. This can also lead to higher retention rates if the seller refers his patients to the buyer for diseases such as dry eye management, diabetic care, or glaucoma management. This allows patients to feel they are not being “handed off” by the seller and instead results in mutual care of the patient that makes for an easy transition when the seller is no longer in the practice.

This is not an all-inclusive list, but does give a good start to the process of transitioning patients to the new owner.

Coach Kelly will be measured on his performance as a coach by the number of wins his team earns. Unlike Coach Kelly, the buyer will be replacing a successful seller who will be able to assist in the transition of the practice.

The seller plays a large part in the transition of patients; therefore, discussion and agreement on how this will be carried out is extremely important to maintain prior to the sale of the practice. To best facilitate this, expectations should be written out in the letter of intent and final buy/ sell agreement.

A high retention rate depends on intentional planning and clear expectations between the buyer and seller.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AOA.

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