Keeping A Close Eye on Canada’s Optical Health

By Cheryl Long

irisWhen it comes to optical health and preserving Canadians’ eyesight, a leading vision care company is pushing the envelope on behalf of all ages, from children trying on their first pair of glasses to seniors facing a myriad of eye conditions as they grow older.

IRIS The Visual Group was founded in 1986 by Dr. Francis Jean, who opened his first optometry practice in his hometown of Baie-Comeau, Quebec. The optometrist later founded a buying group of like-minded doctors who adopted the IRIS trademark in 1990. Today, the company’s branded group of optometrists, opticians and ophthalmologists — the largest network of eyecare professionals in Canada — work collaboratively to offer the highest quality of products and services dedicated to vision health in a way that differentiates themselves from their industry peers.

Dr. Michael Chaiken joined IRIS in 2008 after spending his career working as an independent optometrist. Lured away from thoughts of retirement by Dr. Jean, the company’s president, Dr. Chaiken began working one day a week. He gradually took on a greater role within the organization and eventually moved into the position of vice president. But things changed dramatically for the company in 2014. An avid cyclist, Dr. Jean was participating in the IRIS Challenge — a fundraising event Dr. Jean set up to support his brother, Remi, who was battling cancer — when he died suddenly at the age of 56. It was a blow not only to the IRIS team spread out across the country, but also the industry, as they lost someone described as both an exceptional leader and a visionary.

Dr. Chaiken stepped into his role full time and was appointed CEO in May 2016. His own industry experience is vast and includes stints as president of the Quebec Order of Optometrists and chairman of the Canadian Optometric Regulatory Authorities. “Life takes you into strange places,” he commented. “I’m honoured to be able to step into Dr. Jean’s shoes; they’re big shoes to fill. He loved this profession more than any other optometrist I know.”

Close to 150 locations across Canada
Today, Dr. Chaiken is working with the rest of the IRIS team to carry on Dr. Jean’s legacy — to provide the best eye care possible while improving vision health standards for Canadians. Built primarily through acquisition, IRIS has approximately 150 stores across the country, including about 85 in Quebec and the remainder in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. The organization combines the skills of optometrists, opticians and ophthalmologists who offer services ranging from eye exams to the dispensing of eyeglasses, sunglasses and contact lenses to laser vision correction at the independently-operated IRIS Ophthalmology Clinic in Laval, Quebec.

“We’re catering to people who value their vision and understand vision is important at every stage of their lives,” Dr. Chaiken said. “We want to be able to take care of those people forever, so that they see better every day as they grow old.”

IRIS has had a reputation as a higher end optical company but Dr. Chaiken wants to dispel the myth that their products are aimed at a more upscale market. “We value everybody; we’re not just there for high-earning people. We’re there for everybody who values their vision.” That often starts with a professional eye exam as the eyes can be considered the gateway to the body. Those exams can identify other health issues, Dr. Chaiken explained, and can even help to alert to serious medical conditions. He recalled one young patient who came to him with concerns about her reading vision. Identifying a neurological problem, Dr. Chaiken recommended an immediate visit to a neurologist who discovered swelling in the woman’s brain. The exam and subsequent treatment saved her life.

That push to enlighten Canadians about the importance of vision health is getting a boost through the company’s IRIS Ambassadors program. The campaign appeals to a wide range of consumers, but reaches out in particular to a younger generation who now see eyeglasses as more of a fashion statement than a necessity. Many of the ambassadors are bloggers who not only spotlight some of the latest eyewear available through IRIS but also promote healthy lifestyles. Tamy-Emma Pepin is a favourite on social networks and Eleni McMullin shares her personal style on her blog, Convey The Moment. Blogger and hairstylist Bethany Menzel, PARTYSKIRTS founders Mariel and Lauren, fashion blogger Jenny Jovanovic and professional road cyclist Lex Albrecht are also IRIS ambassadors, all sporting frames that combine fashion, fun and quality vision care.

IRIS Ambassadors appeal to younger crowd
“The world’s changing, with the internet and typical advertising and the way it gets to the consumer. Young people are looking at other media and we adopted an ambassador program to address that through social media,” Dr. Chaiken explained. “Hopefully those people can show their followers that their vision is important, that IRIS is accessible. I think it’s been working very successfully. We’ve seen a good increase in the number of patients we have coming in and what’s interesting is we’re getting more and more of the younger crowd.”

While trends in eyewear are making glasses more popular among all ages, advances in surgical techniques are helping an increasing number of Canadians choose another option. Healing times are shorter, there is less visual disturbance and vision correction is more successful than ever before, Dr. Chaiken said. At the IRIS Ophthalmology Clinic, procedures like Ultralasik, Laser Blended Vision and intraocular lenses can result in a significant improvement in nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism. While early laser eye surgeries increased the ability to see at a distance without glasses, today’s procedures can correct eyes for different types of vision needs — for distance vision and for seeing up close, reducing the dependence on any corrective lenses.

New focus on company growth
IRIS has been fundamental in making advances on the regulatory side as well. There was a time in Ontario when opticians and optometrists couldn’t legally operate a business together but IRIS worked to change legislation and make improvements to the industry. Following the death of Dr. Jean, IRIS underwent changes internally, looking at ways to improve profitability through cost-cutting measures and mergers, Dr. Chaiken said. As IRIS looks to the future, the company is in expansion mode through acquisitions across the country with the hiring of three new Directors of Business Development/Acquisitions for Eastern Canada, Ontario and Western Canada.

“We’re also looking for strategic and financial partners to grow even faster,” Dr. Chaiken said. “The hope is that IRIS will become 500 locations around the country or close to 20 percent of the Canadian marketplace. We’re really excited about the future.”

And that’s good news for a population that is going to need ever-expanding vision care in the years to come, whether in the form of products, diagnostics or surgery. Not only is the company committed to a higher level of excellence, but they’re involved in legislative changes that will allow optometrists to take a greater role in eye care. “IRIS will encourage all of our optometrists to be on the front line of those changes,” Dr. Chaiken said. “We push the envelope.”