The year before I arrived in the industry, 1971, saw the FDA’s approval of the first mass-produced soft contact lens. Talk about a game-changer! That technology drove many contact lens labs out of business and opened the door for a vast number of specialists…and happy consumers. Today, such lenses represent a $15 billion dollar industry segment.
At retail, the likes of Pearl Vision came on the scene as the first national retail brand. And in 1971, optometrists in Rhode Island became the first allowed to use diagnostic drugs. Technology was becoming ever-more present. Distribution channels for products was changing. The classic ophthalmic laboratory gave up their historical dominance of frame distribution, giving way to direct-sellers such as Safilo, Optyl and Avant-Garde. Fashion became more important as Diane Von Furstenberg came on the scene with her own line of eyewear.
Yes, the early 1970s was an era of sea-change in our industry, which prompted the first national trade-show, Optifair, which launched in 1978. It was at that event that, really for the first time, the entire industry came together. I remember it well and learned so much wandering the aisles of that first trade show.
Along my journey over the past fifty years, I’ve been fortunate to have observed, and experienced, a number of periods of dramatic change in our industry. Back in the 1970s, the entire industry could fit into the bar at the New York Hilton. Today, our industry employs hundreds of thousands and touches the lives of virtually every person…and is becoming ever-more important!
We seem to be, once again, in the midst of another sea-change. We’ve Private Equity backed consolidators acquiring practices on a daily basis. Optometrists in 4 states can now perform some surgeries and 10 states now allow laser use by ODs. We’ve an entire industry segment focused on myopia control. Optometrists are opening spas and other expanded practices. Mega mergers such as that of Luxottica and Essilor are driving concerns on the supply-side. Vision Plans are ever-more dominant, in spite of losing providers daily.
Over the past couple of years, telemedicine has become mainstream, largely the result of the global pandemic. Just this morning, I read of an Israeli technology that will allow for complete robotic cataract surgery. Imagine…machines performing surgery. And just the other day, I connected with a firm that’s introducing a virtual reality headset that can perform a variety of ophthalmic examinations. OMG, what’s next?
With age and experience comes perspective. My message this week is that, with all this change, opportunity is knocking. When you combine an aging population with an epidemic of visual challenges resulting from use of personal devices, our market is expanding at a rate that’s the envy of many industries. In so many respects, eyecare’s motto should be “SOONER OR LATER, WE’RE GONNA GET YA.”
This November, in Nashville, our theme will be “Retrospective Perspective.” What can we learn from our industry’s history and that of others? What can our experiences during prior era’s tell us about the future? Are we at the beginning of the end…or the beginning of the beginning? What opportunities lie before the profession?
I look forward to sharing some Retrospective Perspective with you…in Nashville…in November.