Vision Therapy Allows Us to Change Our Patients’ Lives

Embracing vision therapy not only helped Dr. Bell grow her practice, but it strengthened her connection with her patients and reignited her passion for optometry.

When I graduated from the Southern College of Optometry (SCO) in 2012, I never had any intention of starting a vision therapy (VT) practice or being a practice owner. In 2014, I joined Dr. Ethan Huisman as an associate when his practice was taking off. He was booked out and needed help as he was moving into a bigger location. While I started working part-time, within three months I had a full schedule, and within six months, we decided to start VT in our primary care office. VT grew rapidly, and it is now beyond anything I could’ve ever expected. I joined the practice as a partner in 2021, and we’ve since grown to four locations and nine doctors. 

How Did We Get Started in Vision Therapy?
When I started as a new associate at Elite Eye Care, I was the new, young, female doctor, which meant I was getting a lot of pediatric patients. Luckily, I loved kids and pediatric eye care, and I began to find my niche. I was finding that a lot of my patients had binocular vision issues and struggled with reading. My personality doesn’t sit well with having a problem without a solution. I was talking through my frustration with my boss (who is now my partner), and he told me to just start VT.

We figured out a budget, an equipment list, and what additional training I’d want in order to be comfortable offering vision therapy — along with countless phone calls and emails to friends and the VT doctors at SCO. We started vision therapy in our office within a few months. My initial goal was to serve six to eight patients at a time, and we worked to build this into my primary care schedule. In 2017, I attended Dr. Bob Sanet’s PAVE course in San Diego, and this is where it all changed for me. This course showed me what was really possible as an OD. It ignited my passion, and that year changed the course of our entire practice. Our waitlist exploded, and we ended up doing a build-out to a VT-only clinic that opened in 2018.

When we first started offering VT, we were doing it out of an exam lane in our primary care practice that wasn’t equipped for these kinds of patients. We outgrew this space, and within three years, we moved to a separate location that was conveniently located just a few doors down from our primary care office. Now, we’ve evolved to having our VT and primary care offices under one roof, and our VT patients have a separate entrance and extended hours. Our front desk team can check in patients for either office, and the cross-training and communication among both clinics allows for a better patient experience and overall improved patient care. It allows our entire practice to live and breathe the functional vision model that we are working so hard to implement.

Positive Experiences are the Best Form of Marketing
We will never be able to get an accurate number of how much VT has grown our primary care practice, but many of our patients who fill our primary care schedules are relatives, neighbors, other providers, and friends of our VT patients. When a patient has a life-changing service such as VT that truly alters the quality of their life, they talk about it, and that spreads. If I’m getting a new patient VT consult, the other doctors in my practice are getting their parents and siblings for comprehensive eye exams. Once a parent develops that trust with us and sees the tangible changes in their child, they want to trust us with all of their eye care. VT graduates from over two hours away still come annually with their parents and siblings for routine care. I’m not sure there’s a bigger compliment or testament to what we’re doing than that.

We have never actively marketed our VT services. My best referral sources are the ODs I work with at Elite Eye Care who serve our primary care clinic. Outside of that, I’ve developed great relationships with local occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech language therapy groups and functional medicine doctors who see the value in vision rehabilitation. Outside of referrals specifically from health care, word-of-mouth referrals continue to be our driving force. Patients have huge success with our clinic, and they share this with neighbors, relatives, teammates, or on social media. The number of patients we get because someone posted their life-changing improvements or how their child is no longer struggling to read on social media or in a Facebook moms’ group is incredible.

Making Tangible Changes in Patients’ Lives
For any comprehensive exam, we are treating our patient as a whole. Our patients feel heard and validated as we listen to their issues and offer tangible solutions. We constantly hear that they’ve never had a provider – not just in our field, but in general – offer such helpful solutions or really listen to their complaints. I think one of the valuable things about our practice model is that if we’re not the best provider for a specific issue, we’ve built an incredible network of like-minded providers we can refer to and get our patients real help and life-changing solutions. I’m now seeing patients who did vision therapy eight years ago and are now excelling in school and life. It’s incredible to see how impactful vision therapy is and how it shifts a patient’s trajectory in life – not just helping them see better but also influencing their confidence, their performance in school, and even their college and career choice. To enter a kid’s life at such a delicate age and help them feel more confident and less frustrated with school is so rewarding. It changes their entire outlook on life and changes nearly everything they do and will accomplish from that point forward. I do not take that responsibility lightly.

At Dr. Bell’s practice, Elite Eye Care, both comprehensive eye care and vision therapy are under the same roof.

Vision therapy and the functional vision model has become the way we practice as a whole. From the way our operations team triages patients and the way they schedule them, to the questions our technicians ask and the lens solutions we offer in our optical, our doctors now practice true full-scope optometry. What appeared on the surface as a difficult multifocal contact lens fit might actually be a mild-TBI patient who didn’t realize their visual issues were caused by a fall a year ago. We have numerous examples of patients who come in with a vague complaint that could’ve been pushed off in the past, but now we ask the right questions, we understand how vision impacts the whole person, and how the solutions we can offer as optometrists can truly change someone’s life.

  • Heidi Bell, OD, FAAO, FCOVD

    Dr. Heidi Bell, OD, FAAO, FCOVD, graduated from Iowa State University with honors in 2008 and went on to receive her Doctorate of Optometry from Southern College of Optometry in Memphis in 2012. She furthered her training through a Residency in Primary Care Optometry, spending her time serving underserved populations in various public health settings in Memphis. In 2015, Dr. Bell achieved her Fellowship in the American Academy of Optometry, and in 2019 she became a Board Certified Fellow of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD). Dr. Bell is a member of the Iowa Optometric Association, American Optometric Association, American Academy of Optometry, the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD), Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation Association (NORA), and The College of Syntonic Optometry (CSO). She also serves as an Advisory Board Member for the Delta Dental of Iowa Foundation, supporting their mission of providing dental, vision, and overall health care to underserved Iowans.

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