By Shauna Thornhill, OD, Amarillo, Texas
I started my career in a high-end luxury practice. There were not enough available hours each week, so I also began working in an independent practice adjacent to Walmart three days a week.
The Walmart setting was familiar to me, as I started working in a Walmart Vision Center right after high school and through college. That time proved instrumental: I met my future husband working in the Vision Center, and the OD—a Pennsylvania College of Optometry alumni—encouraged me to attend optometry school there.
When the private practice became busier, and the owners offered me full-time work there, I let my Walmart lease go. I thought private practice was what I wanted for my career. I continued that work for four years, but I felt constrained by the sales and service goals I was required to meet. Instead, I wanted to spend all my time focusing on and serving my patients.
Seeing patients on my terms
I knew I needed a change. Another OD I knew was also looking for part-time work, and the two of us teamed up to take on a Walmart lease in Amarillo, each working two days each week. Because I was familiar with the setting and knew that, in two-door Texas, the independent doctor has control over all elements of the practice process, from hiring staff and bringing in additional equipment to deciding what services to offer and how much to charge, I was excited about this opportunity. It still surprises me to hear colleagues who haven’t worked in this setting tell me how a corporate affiliation limits what doctors can do. That has never been my experience. I feel supported in my independent corporate setting and had felt the heavy oversight of my private practice boss more keenly.
Eye care is primary health care
Soon after, a Walmart was opening just down the road from where I had gone to high school in Amarillo. I knew the school, the community and its struggles all too well. I grew up in poverty; as a third-grader, I walked around on a broken ankle for three weeks because of lack of access to and funds to pay for care.
Getting an education helped me break the cycle of poverty that can crush so many people. When I saw that I had a chance to give back to this community and serve students and their families who might otherwise not have access to eye care, it felt almost like a sign. I took on the second lease at the new Walmart location.
Secrets to success?
Both of my independent practices at Walmart are successful. There aren’t really any secrets to it; many ODs want to make it more complicated than it needs to be. My strategies boil down to two: provide your patients and customers with excellent service and hire a great staff.
Hiring staff that shares my philanthropic vision to helping people can be a little challenging. These practices are primarily cash-pay services, as the vast majority of our patients have no health insurance or vision benefits; however, I’ve also had patients follow me from the luxury practice, and all are treated with respect and given the same excellent service.
I found one of my best employees in an annual toy drive we host—Sight Before Christmas. For one gruelingly long day, we provide eye exams at no cost to anyone who donates a toy for our Toys for Tots drive. In our eighth year, Walmart again matched the toy donations received—and all donations are given to children in the Amarillo area.
About four years ago, I had a volunteer come for the drive. She was quiet but completely dedicated and stayed for the entire 12-hour day. I kept my eye on her, wondering if we were exhausting her, and at the end of the day, I walked over to make sure everything was OK. She simply said, “Sign me up for next year.” She shared my heart. A few months later, when I had a job opening, she was the first person I thought of, and she’s been a valued employee ever since.
My staff and I have become experts on some of the services offered to the uninsured or underinsured people in this community. I’m often the first or only health care professional my patients have seen, so I’m not only providing a comprehensive eye exam but also helping them locate other services for no-cost mammograms, prenatal and newborn care or access to a volunteer clinic where they can get health care and medications.
The Walmart Health Center unveiled in 2019 in Dallas, Georgia, is going to be a game-changer for communities like mine and I look forward to seeing it expand to more locations. I’m proud to have my practice in a store where corporate leaders recognize the need for affordable, accessible health care—and I’m proud that optometry is part of what is driving it forward.