Generosity paid off for this practice

Charity begins at work

When one of the ophthalmologists at the Eye Clinic of Austin (TX) heard about a national program that provides free cataract surgery to needy patients, he thought it was something that his practice should be involved in. "He thought he should give something back to the community," says Ronda Blacksher, projects coordinator at the clinic.

But what neither he nor Blacksher realized three years ago was the positive publicity their participation in Mission Cataract would generate in the community.

"We didn’t start out looking at this as a promotional opportunity," she says. "But over the years, we have gotten the word out to the community."

Fresno, CA-based Mission Cataract involves more than 100 clinics around the country and over 280 ophthalmologists. Each practice must publicize the event, prescreen patients for both physical and financial need, and provide surgery and after care.

Blacksher says she was given a press kit by the organization but no other assistance. Over the years, she has had to learn on her own how best to publicize the event. "I contact the television and radio stations and the print media," she says. She also goes a step further, enlisting the aid of organizations such as the American Association of Retired Persons and the local chamber of commerce to publicize the event.

For a month, the clinic accepts inquiries. This year, they had about 100 calls. After prescreening — which includes questions about their vision, previous cataract diagnosis, and whether they have insurance, or qualify for Medicare or Medicaid — there were 35 people who were scheduled to come to the free cataract screening held in July.

The screening was held on a Saturday, and office staff volunteered to participate. "We had more people volunteer than we needed," she says, noting that 12 of the 35 staff showed up. "They are very unified by doing something for the community."

Donated materials, space keep costs low

Fourteen people were accepted into the program and are scheduled to undergo cataract surgery, which normally costs about $4,000 per eye.

The lens implants and hospital space for the surgery were donated, so the practice doesn’t have to cover those costs, Blacksher says. In fact, the only cost associated with the entire project relate to the time she and the three physicians participating spend on it.

Blacksher notes that she only works part-time, and spent part of her work hours over two months planning the event. The physicians volunteer the six hours for the screening, as well as the two hours per surgery and follow-up care for each patient.

"Considering what we put into it, we get a lot out," she adds. "We were on a local morning show and made the evening news. It’s all project focused coverage, but our name is included."

While she can’t say by how much, Blacksher says in three years that the practice has been involved with Mission Cataract, business has increased. "Our other patients often talk about our participation in the project and how much they approve of it."

Give back to your community

Because of her practice’s experience with the project, Blacksher recommends that others find some method of giving back to their communities. She offers the following tips to practices who get involved in charity projects:

- Find a specific need.

"You have to find a project that speaks for itself," says Blacksher. "Mission Cataract is self-explanatory and meets a clear need in the community."

- Enlist your staff.

Making sure your staff are behind you is key to your success, she says. "You also have to make sure they know about it from the start, otherwise, they’ll be getting calls about it and won’t know how to direct them."

- Be assertive with the media.

"You can’t be afraid to go to the press and say, ‘We’re doing this, now cover it,’" she says. "If you have chosen something that will make a difference to the community, then you have no reason to be embarrassed about getting coverage for the project and your practice."

Ronda Blacksher, Projects Coordinator, Eye Clinic of Austin (TX). Telephone: (512) 418-0923.