I’ve been alternating contact lenses with glasses since I was a sophomore in high school. During each visit to the optometrist, I picked out new frames for my specs and placed a new order for disposable lenses, never thinking about ordering them online. Despite all the advertisements for 1-800-CONTACTS and other contact lens vendors with web-heavy operations, I thought it seemed most prudent to let my eye care professional place the order. I was right, but I never knew why until now: inadequate consumer protection for online buyers.
Just yesterday, I visited a new optometrist and went through the normal check-up: refraction, measurements, and the infamous air-puff glaucoma test. This new eye doctor was chattier than most, and during my exam, we ended up talking about the questionable business practices of online providers of contact lenses. Lamenting the dubious methods employed for prescription verification, the doc mentioned several companies by name and explained the problem: many of these contact lens vendors are so eager to sell their products that they don’t take adequate steps to ensure prescriptions are valid. He explained, for example, that most of the companies mechanically call or fax optometrists’ offices to verify prescriptions, but they only deny contact lenses to online buyers when they hear a definitive “no” reply from the eye doctor during an incredibly short timeframe.
Surprised, I decided to research the issue. When it comes to something as serious as medical devices (which is what the FDA rightfully considers contact lenses), is relying on a doctor’s silence adequate? Should anything other than a definitive “yes” on a prescription verification be acceptable for dispensing contact lenses? After all, there are many reasons why a call or fax may not be returned: the office could be closed for vacation, the fax number could be wrong, a voicemail message could get accidentally deleted, etc. There are just too many contingencies, and it results in inadequate consumer protection.
According to an FAQ on the 1-800-CONTACTS website (checked on May 11, 2006):
“After the customer provides 1-800 CONTACTS with the prescription information, 1-800 CONTACTS will then attempt to contact the eye care provider to verify that the prescription is accurate and has not expired.”
Notice that all they promise to do is “attempt” to contact your eye care professional for prescription verification. But how rigorous are those attempts? Considering that this company and other similar providers are out to make a buck, one has to wonder whether they really care about online buyers.
Then, I uncovered the following on the Federal Trade Commission website (www.ftc.gov):
“The verification process works like this: the consumer provides prescription information to the seller, who then submits it to the prescriber in a verification request. The prescriber has eight-business-hours to respond. If the prescriber does not respond within the required time, the prescription is verified automatically, and the seller may provide contact lenses to the consumer.”
That’s not exactly erring on the side of caution, is it? People who are trying to avoid the added cost of a visit to an optometrist can simply keep trying to order to prescriptions from different websites until one of them works. And let’s face it, the same people who can’t afford a check-up visit to the eye doctor may also (due to socioeconomic and structural factors) not realize how detrimental it can be to wear contacts without a valid prescription. We’re taking about eye health here – a critical part of bodily health – and it’s indisputable that eyes change over time, requiring frequent check-ups. As they stand, the guidelines in place for prescription verification (a recent development since the age of ecommerce) are inadequate for consumer protection. Who’s worrying about the people whose eyes at most at risk?
Perhaps their prescription is expired? Perhaps the buyer doesn’t even have one. If a seller of contact lenses only has to wait for a measly eight business hours to go by without a response, it’s not hard to see, pun intended, how thousands of Americans end up with contact lenses for which they don’t have valid doctor’s approval. With such flimsy prescription verification guidelines in place, all you’d have to do is place your order at a time when you think your eye doctor (or any other eye doctor) won’t be able to respond to the prescription verification request right away.
You may be wondering why you’d care about prescription verification if you know your own prescription is valid. In response, I can only remind you how important it is to hold businesses accountable for socially responsible behavior. As long as the makers and dispensers of contact lenses sell more contact lenses, they don’t care whether people are protected – even when we’re talking about unsophisticated consumers who are under-informed about eye health. As long as the manufacturers and distributers have enough money to lobby legislators and ensure that prescription verification laws remain loose, these companies can manipulate consumers into believing that they’re the good guys and the eye doctors are the bad guys.
Call me old-fashioned, but when it comes to eye health, I’m more likely to trust my doctor than a greedy corporation. At least that’s how I see it.