Glorious and Free(-Form)

By Brian Dunleavy

lensfocusTracey MacLeod believes in free-form lenses – for certain patients, anyway.

“Once you have witnessed the digital surfacing process, it is hard to imagine dispensing anything but free-form,” says the optician and owner of Wizard Optical in Halifax.

But while free-form technology (also known as digital technology, Wavefront technology or high-definition technology) has been the buzz in the eyeglass lens arena in recent years, it’s not for everyone – at least not yet. Most experts agree that the technology – which incorporates multiple measures (including pantoscopic tilt, vertex distance, near viewing distance and panoramic angle), in addition to the patient’s prescription and pupillary distance (PD), into the surfacing process – has greatly improved the optics in progressive lenses, and thus expanded the options for presbyopic patients. Single-vision, however, is a different story – for now.

“The bulk of our patients are 45 to 50 or older; most younger people are having LASIK done now,” notes Michelle Skinner, optician and owner at Cowan Optical in St. John’s. “Our presbyope patients love free-form progressives. With older progressives, you had to remind patients to look through the center of the lens because of the peripheral distortion. With free-form progressives, there’s no peripheral distortion. It’s almost like looking through a single-vision lens.”

Still, although opticians like Skinner and MacLeod agree that free-form progressives are a no-brainer for their presbyopic patients, they are not always an easy sell – particularly if opticians haven’t taken the time to educate themselves on the new technology. The higher price tag associated with these lenses means that opticians must be able to explain the visual benefits to patients who may have a difficult time understanding the technology.

“Manufacturers have spent lots of time and money on information to help the dispenser, and we all need to take advantage of this,” explains David Watson, an instructor at the BC College of Optics in Surrey. “These designs are exceptional products, but opticians need to be educated and skilled in producing the measurements needed. No longer are we merely taking PDs and segment heights with pen and ruler. We now need to measure segment heights, PDs, pantoscopic tilt, face-form or wrap and vertex distance of the frame for patients to receive full custom-lens benefits.”

At Wizard Optical, MacLeod and her staff initiated a formalized free-form education process two years ago in order to get their heads around the new product line. By taking advantage of educational programs offered by lens manufacturers and their wholesale laboratory and doing some research on their own, each member of the staff attempted to immerse themselves in all things free-form. Then, they held regular “think tanks” during staff meetings to share what they had learned.

“We prepared a one-page simplified graphic that depicts a lap and a grinding pad used for ‘conventional’ lenses,” MacLeod explains. “It compares that to the computer-controlled free-form cutting process, where those personal factors can be introduced. I found [the grinding lap] to be the most effective sales tool. It’s bulky appearance and old-fashioned look enhance the concept of the new technology used in free-form lenses.”

But while resourceful sales approaches such as these have made free-form lenses a must for MacLeod’s presbyopic patients – she says 100 percent of her progressive lens sales are now in free-form – she has not taken the same hard-sell approach for single-vision wearers. Skinner agrees. It seems that although free-form technology has revolutionized progressive lenses, it remains a work in progress on the single-vision side, except perhaps for patients with high prescriptions.

“I’m a -4.50 and I tried free-form lenses in single-vision and didn’t see a difference over other single-vision lenses,” notes Skinner. “Believe me, if we tried them and thought, ‘wow!’ we’d be selling them, but we can’t sell something we don’t believe in one hundred percent, especially given the cost. My sense is the technology will only get better, and we will soon see free-form take off in single-vision too.”

Which will mean better vision for patients and higher profits for dispensers.