The Clinic: Eye clinic OMC Hanzekliniekby OPHTEC on 17 December 2020
In our series "The Clinic" we visit OMC HanzeKliniek (The Netherlands). An interview with Managing director Geke Hoekstra, about the clinic, the ties with OPHTEC and the impact of the coronavirus crisis.
The white walls of the building, about 150 metres from OPHTEC, that houses the OMC HanzeKliniek are shining in the sun. The car park in front of the building is fairly full: not as full as before the coronavirus crisis, but also not as empty as during the corona lockdown a few months ago. The same is true of the central waiting room. It looks hopeful. The side stairs next to the treatment and consulting rooms take us to the second floor, where we find the office of Geke Hoekstra, Managing Director of the OMC HanzeKliniek. There she answers our questions about the clinic, the ties with OPHTEC and the impact of the coronavirus crisis.
The OMC HanzeKliniek is only a few metres from OPHTEC headquarters: that can hardly be a coincidence. What’s the story?
Geke Hoekstra explains: ‘The OMC HanzeKliniek and OPHTEC are members of the same family. Like OPHTEC, we are a product of the creative mind and enthusiasm of ophthalmologist Professor Jan Worst and the entrepreneurial spirit of his wife, Anneke Worst-van Dam. Jan Worst and two other ophthalmologists founded a group practice in Groningen over fifty years ago. They established it in a beautiful historic building in the old city centre. It was the first ophthalmology group practice in the Netherlands, and it developed into the OMC HanzeKliniek. Today, following various takeovers, the clinic is a subsidiary of OPHTEC and Triade. (Triade is an investment company of the University Medical Center in Groningen (the UMCG))’.
‘The family ties with OPHTEC are very clear. I can say that, because I had final responsibility for human resource management at OPHTEC for ten years. The culture is the same. The staff of both companies feel strong ties to them, I think because it’s a family firm and because of Jan and Anneke Worst’s inspirational mission to help people with their eye diseases. We’ve just celebrated forty years in service by one of our staff. Just like at OPHTEC, people stay for a long time, they want to go on doing this work.’
‘The two companies also have business ties. We use OPHTEC’s products – their premium lenses and IVI sets – and we rent this building from them. We also use OPHTEC’s IT, HR and TS. There can occasionally be some friction in the family, just as in a real family, when we buy ophthalmic products from another supplier – because OPHTEC does not supply a particular product, or because an ophthalmologist prefers a different product. But I stand by our independence, that’s very important.’
Can you describe the clinic?
Geke Hoekstra says: ‘We’re a medium-sized clinic treating patients with many kinds of ophthalmic problems. We have three prongs: general ophthalmology, refraction surgery and an optician. We have 44 staff, seven of whom are ophthalmologists. Our patients and customers are from Groningen and a wide surrounding region.’
‘The building dates back to 1997 and was ultra-modern and spacious then, when it was opened. Nowadays, more than twenty years on, that’s not the case. It’s far too small now, and no longer so modern. As a result we started making refurbishment and conversion plans in January, but unfortunately we’ve had to put them on hold for the time being because of the coronavirus crisis.’
What makes the clinic unique?
Geke replies: ‘The clinic is unique because it’s Professor Worst’s – the clinic of the man who gave the world iris-fixated lenses. He implanted them here, in his own clinic. We are proud of that history and we’re following in his footsteps. We offer a wide range of ophthalmic treatments, and refraction surgery is still one of our specialities. Nowadays we not only implement iris-fixated lenses, we also perform SMILE laser eye surgery.’
‘Our independence also makes us unique. We are not part of the increasing number of chains that are springing up in the Netherlands. We do everything ourselves. That has advantages, as you’re your own boss, but it’s also very demanding. You have to cover a lot of areas with a relatively small group of people: not just ophthalmology, also the rules and regulations, marketing, purchasing, and so on. But that’s what makes it special’.
‘Another unique feature, I think, is that we have an in-house optician’s, which is not something you often find at an ophthalmology clinic. Thanks to the optician’s our eye care ends not just with a prescription for an optician but with a pair of glasses to put on. That’s convenient. Take a cataract patient, for example, who needs an interim pair of glasses after having one eye treated. Or a child, who pays their first visit to the orthoptist and walks out proudly wearing a pair of glasses. It works the other way as well: some customers come to our optician’s because the opticians always have the expertise of fellow specialists in the building to fall back on. They find that comforting.’
How have you got through the lockdown and how are things going now
Geke answers: ‘With a lot of flexibility, improvisation and good communication. We closed from the 16th of March to the 28th of April. It was a very stressful time. We needed to adapt quickly and improvise. All with that dark cloud of uncertainty hanging over our heads. How long is this going to last? How long will we need to stay closed? What’s in store for us? Will we fall sick? Will our patients fall sick?
‘On the first Sunday, a team of volunteers phoned all the patients who had appointments, cancelling them until further notice. We did stay open for urgent and semi-urgent cases and to treat macular degeneration, but that meant we had very little time to ensure that the work could be carried out safely. We introduced a different route through the building, we protected equipment with plexiglass screens and we took other protective measures.
We kept all our staff up to date on developments through coronavirus newsletters sent daily, and later weekly, by e-mail or WhatsApp to their mobiles. We also regularly phoned staff who were more or less prevented from working due to corona. I thought it was very important to keep in touch as much as possible with the natural group of staff who make up the organisation.’
‘The office staff and optician’s staff started working from home. That required some creativity, as an organisation like ours is not at all set up for this. The optician’s suddenly started receiving huge numbers of orders for contact lenses. People were hoarding them on a massive scale. With a lot of improvisation, we were able to arrange for one of the optician’s staff to provide the contact lens service from home.’
‘We reopened on the 28th of April, a few days after the official date when it was permitted. My stress started all over again: I felt the huge responsibility for the safety of our staff and patients.’
The outpatient clinic opened with a lot of protective equipment and a different division of responsibilities. Staff found it difficult to get used to the PPE in particular, as it makes treating patients very different: interaction with them is completely changed. It creates distance, whereas care professionals want to be up close. It goes completely against the grain for them. I noticed it made some staff very unhappy.’
‘With all the health protection measures the waiting lists got longer. Patients were very understanding to start with, but later on people started to lose their patience. The waiting list bottleneck was due not so much to staff capability as to lack of space in the building. You need space to comply with the one-and-a-half metre distancing rule. So we extended our opening times to provide more throughput. We now open from 8 am to 8 pm on weekdays and some Saturdays. Another reason, of course, was financial: after all, we are and remain a commercial operation.’
‘We’ve been working in line with this protocol for months now and we’ve gradually got used to it. We’re finding that the new approach has positive aspects too. It’s very quiet in the waiting room, for instance, very different from before the coronavirus crisis. Patients tell us they like that, which I can understand. Patients also appreciate the extended opening times, which are appropriate for this difficult time, although it places greater demands on staff. But I think it’s important to consider the positive aspects as well when the team reviews the coronavirus period. Perhaps something positive for the future will emerge from these bleak times.’
This interview has also been published in OPHTEC's magazine OphTheRecord (edition 2020 - 2021)