Is Corporate Big Data Marketing Stealing Your Patients?

By Brian Chou, OD, FAAO

April 13, 2016

Large corporations are using increasingly sophisticated technology and marketing techniques to reach your patients, swaying them to spend their dollars with them instead of you. The key to stemming this business erosion is intelligently designed practice software to capture eyewear and contact lens sales through targeted and appropriately timed communication.

Target Corporation uses predictive analytics – data mining to assess the likelihood of future outcomes – in order to influence purchasing habits when consumers are most susceptible and receptive. A frequently cited example is Target’s statistical algorithm which allegedly predicted that a teenage shopper in Minnesota was pregnant after she purchased unscented lotion, mineral supplements and cotton balls. The teenager received coupons for maternity clothes and cribs. The teenager’s unwitting father felt it was inappropriate for his innocent daughter to receive these coupons, so he complained to a Target store manager, only to discover later than his daughter was indeed pregnant and not as innocent as he’d have liked to believe.

Target is not alone in using predictive analytics. More retail corporations are doing the same. You can bet that it’s already taking place in our industry. Big Data will go after the easy pickings, incentivizing consumers who purchase multipurpose solution to see another practitioner for alternate contact lenses. It could include a manufacturer of over-the-counter readers targeting shoppers over age 45, or the manufacturer of antioxidant dietary supplements targeting elderly Caucasians susceptible to macular degeneration. This is no different from CVS printing customized coupons based on what you bought to try modifying future buying, or Amazon making suggestions on what else to buy based on what’s in your shopping cart.

Big Data has even evaluated subtle user behaviors, such as how much time is spent lingering on a webpage for a specific product. For some practitioners, this is all the more reason to prescribe daily disposables so that their patients don’t purchase contact lens care product, offering some shelter from sinister Big Data manipulation.

If you are at the grocery store checkout yourself, one way to shop more privately is by entering the phone number from the “Jenny song” (876-5309) as your alternate ID in place of your loyalty card, as this frequently works at major retailers regardless of area code. Still many consumers seem more than willing to give up their privacy, and even invite targeted marketing.

The expanding reach of predictive analytics is why we must demand that our practice management software developers enable functionality to communicate with our patients before they even know they’ll make a purchase. For example, a brand new contact lens wearer, or patient who just underwent LASIK, is likely to purchase plano sunglasses immediately afterward. The consumer tendency is to go to the mall to purchase sunglasses, but software can help intervene through an appropriately timed communication and promotional offer.

So much effort in EHR development has gone toward chasing diminishing incentives for Meaningful Use. But for the majority of optometric practices, revenue is still dominantly driven by the sale of glasses and contact lenses. Software that recognizes this is sorely needed. Useful functionality would include systematically giving patients who purchased a six-month supply of contact lenses the ability to easily re-order more lenses just before the six-month mark with a text or e-mail. Or proactively communicate with the patient with a history of filling their eyeglass prescription at a discount warehouse that your practice offers eyewear that is higher in quality, but less costly, doing this before the patient’s exam to potentially alter the patient’s habit.

If practice software fails to harness predictive analytics with well-timed communication, Big Data, driven by large corporate competitors, are poised to beat us to the punch and our patients will increasingly make purchases outside our offices. In the dystopian world of Big Data, your patient who purchases contact lens care products online will receive promotions to have an online refraction subsidized by an internet eyeglass company, while receiving e-mails before their contact lens supply runs out to schedule an exam within a preferred doctor network for “generic” contact lenses.

The advantage of our practices is that we have access to clinical data and purchase behavior, which are essential for predictive analysis. Big Data can’t access this due to privacy regulations, so they have to circuitously match consumer purchasing behavior to other bits of seemingly disjointed information. Will our industry software developers realize before Big Data does that the greatest opportunity for our practices is unlocking the revenue in retail purchases, not in declining government incentives for medical eyecare?

Do you feel that your EHR and practice management system are sufficiently helping you maximize retail revenue, or do they leave your patients exposed to complete their purchases through corporate competitors?

Brian Chou, OD, FAAO, is a partner with EyeLux Optometry in San Diego, Calif. To contact him:



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