Dr. Sonny Goel is the owner of Goel Vision, which offers Lasik surgery and similar vision procedures at offices in Columbia and Towson.
What made you decide to launch Goel Vision?
I did my residency training at [Greater Baltimore Medical Center] and when I finished I stayed on staff in academics part-time and I also worked in private practice part-time before joining a larger corporate entity [Lasik Plus] and did Lasik. I was actually the very first surgeon for them nationally and I worked for them for 20 years.
After 20 years, I decided to go out on my own and started my own practice called Goel Vision. What I was going to do initially was just have a practice in Columbia, but there was an office that was already kind of built out and ready to go in Towson. So I started the Towson office in January of 2020 while I built out my Columbia location [which opened in July].
You opened the Towson office just a few months before the pandemic started. What was that like?
It was quite scary, but timing is everything I suppose. We just opened in January and had to shut down in March because of A, the governor’s orders but B, our American Academy of Ophthalmology had also put out an advisory for all ophthalmologists to stop performing elective procedures so we could save [personal protective equipment] for the frontline workers. So pretty much every ophthalmology office in the country shut down, except for emergencies.
We were closed for two months from March-something until May, when we were able to get back into it. So it was worrisome. The [Paycheck Protection Program] money [a $65,000 loan] really helped us tremendously. I ended up having to lay staff off, just for when we were closed, so they could get their unemployment. But as soon as the PPP came through I hired everyone back on a full-time basis because the staff had been with me for 10 or 15 years, some of them.
And even after I laid them off, I did continue their health care coverage. I didn’t feel it was right to cancel anybody’s health care coverage in the middle of a pandemic, so I continued to fund that even as the office was closed.
What new safety procedures did you put in place once you reopened?
Because we were off, it gave me a lot of time to reimagine the patient experience. And what I realized was that when a patient comes into the office, they check in at the front desk, they sit in the waiting room, they go to the tech room for testing, then the exam lane, then they get dilated, they go back out to the waiting room, then they go back to the exam lane for me, then back out to the front desk. That’s seven stops on their journey through the office, which is a lot.
I reimagined it and thought about, what can we do with patients before they even walk in the door? We started doing some video telehealth visits for the patients. We started doing a lot of the education in advance; I’d talk with patients before they came in about their situation, tell them about the different refractive procedures they might qualify for based on their situation.
When they come into the office now, the first touchpoint is at the front desk where a staff member will take their temperature, then they go right back to a testing lane with a technician, so that’s stop number two, and then to the exam lane — that’s stop number three — and they stay there. So we dilate them, they stay there, I come in and do my exam and then when I’m done, my staff member then follows up behind me to that same room so the patient can then be discharged from that room out the door.
So we took the seven stops from pre-pandemic to now three stops.
And then in the office, in addition to temperature checks, I’ve installed HEPA filters in every room. We have breath shields on all the equipment and even at the front desk. And we’ve taken out more than half of our waiting room chairs. We socially distance everybody. They also do a curbside check-in when they arrive; they call the office or text the office to say they’ve arrived and get an all-clear to come up.
In the Columbia office, I’ve installed these touchless door openers — literally as you approach the door you wave your hand and the front door will open. Wave your hand for the second door as you get in and the door opens again.
Have you seen an increased interest in Lasik and similar procedures?
Absolutely. We’ve seen an uptick locally and actually nationally, ophthalmologists are seeing that for a number of reasons. Number one is the foggy glasses syndrome people are having when wearing their masks with their glasses. That’s been a huge issue, especially for frontline workers, where you can’t wear your contact lenses because there’s some concern about transmitting Covid through your finger when you’re putting contact lenses in your eyes. And then if they’re wearing masks and shields in the hospital setting, it just becomes very difficult for them to do their job and function, so I’ve treated a lot of health care workers.
And number two, there’s been a lot of people interested in refractive surgery but their work schedule was such that they couldn’t take time out of work to come do it. But now that many people are working from home because their jobs allow that, they’re finding the time to come in for the procedure and having a driver take them home and being able to recover at home without having to worry about driving into work.
What’s on your horizon for this year?
I’ve always been on the forefront of technology. We brought a new procedure called SMILE [small incision lenticule extraction] laser eye surgery to Baltimore. I’m the very first SMILE refractive surgeon in Maryland. And my plan is to continue to innovate on that side. I want to continue to offer the best of the best to my patients.