Dr. Alex J. Smith
Surrounded by the tools of his trade Dr. Alex J. Smith, OD, FAAO shows off his own eye on the computer monitor at his Lifetime Eye Care location just off of Chandler Blvd and 40th street in Awhatukee. May 10, 2011 Darryl Webb/AFN Darryl Webb/AFN

Local pharmacies may be a thing of the past but local optometrists believe that trend won't happen to them despite the growth of chain stores.

"A lot of people have compared it to the path that maybe independent pharmacies have gone and we don't see that happening," said Ken Stellmacher, director of client and consumer marketing for VSP Vision Care, which provides vision insurance plans that focus only on private practice optometrists. "We see independent optometrists thriving. We see our network of doctors continue to grow. We think it has a very strong and sustainable future."

That's good news for Lifetime Eye Care in Ahwatukee Foothills. Owner, Dr. Alex Smith, says he's only seen growth in the short time they've been around, even in a tough economy.

"We purchased the business in June of 2008 and I think the economy tanked about two weeks afterwards," Smith said. "By sticking to our mission of service, quality, excellence and care we've been able to grow as a practice. I think that's a testament to the fact that people appreciate our kind of care."

He believes his kind of care focuses on overall eye health, not just eye wear like most chain stores seem to focus on. He works with local doctors to make sure eye problems and general health problems are taken care of.

"Patients frequently have more than one need," Smith said. "They need to see well in terms of glasses or contacts and also in terms of the health of the eye. In providing a routine examination, frequently we encounter chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, glaucoma, dry eyes. We have a great relationship with local doctors. We communicate back and forth. I'm able to treat a lot of diseases. By developing this health care community we're able to care for patients in an excellent way."

A recent Adult Consumer Eye Exam Experience Survey by Jobson Research showed 73.5 percent of adults who had an eye exam at an independent eye care provider's office within the last six months were asked to provide information on their general health compared to 64.7 percent of those who went to a chain. Patients at independent optometrists were also more likely to be asked about their eye health and their current vision problems.

Stellmacher said there are statistics to show that employees are more likely to get their annual eye exam when they have a plan that promotes private optometrists than they are with a plan that promotes retail.

"They're more likely to use their benefits when they've got a network of private practice providers," Stellmacher said. "There's some sense of comfort and security in that relationship and they know they're going to get the kind of care that they're seeking. Obviously, retail exists because there are some consumers who want convenience and just in and out, but the vast majority of consumers really connect with this notion of personalized eye care."

Stellmacher said the comfort of a private optometrist is the same as with a private practicing doctor or dentist. People want to get to know the person treating them and they want to know they're being treated well.

Smith believes that kind of care is how his business has grown and it's something he plans to continue to offer. He sees nothing but growth in Lifetime Eye Care's future.

"My family lives in Ahwatukee," he said. "I treat my neighbors. It's important to me that we provide excellence in care because it's important to our community. It also gives us an opportunity to give back."

VSP has a long list of private optometrists in the Valley. They have a tool on their website, vsp.com, to find a private optometrist near you.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-7914 or ahurtado@ahwatukee.com

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