At a pop-up talk filmed live at Vision Expo, a panel of experts shared their thoughts on how new optometry graduates can determine the best optometry practice modality for them.
The panel included Patricia Fulmer, OD, FAAO; Keith Smithson, OD; Cory Hakanen, OD, MBA; Chun Auyeung, OD; and Kristen O’Brien, OD. The panelists, who work in a wide variety of modalities, agree that no single modality is right for everyone; it’s important to choose a career path that meshes with your own personal strengths and interests. Choosing the best optometry practice modality is not easy!
Dr. O’Brien, who started her private practice “cold” immediately upon graduating, currently works with a company called iCareAdvisors that helps optometry students to do the same. She values the sense of control that owning a private practice gives her.
“I want to be able to control every aspect of my day and every aspect of my life and for other people that is so overwhelming. They want to go into work and leave at the end of the day and they don’t want to have any of the responsibilities afterwards.”
Dr. O’Brien also likes the flexibility that this affords her. She acknowledges that this path is perhaps one of the most financially challenging in the beginning, but in her words, “there’s never an easier time to live like a student than right after optometry school.” Within 2 ½ – 3 years, she says, she was making more than many of her friends who were optometry graduates in other modalities. Operating a private practice has also been quite fulfilling for her personally, and she appreciates the warm, mutually supportive relationships she has fostered with her staff.
Dr. AuYeung started off in retail optometry for five years, including two independent sub-leases at Target Optical, but is now in the process of opening his own practice. He wound up changing modalities after finding corporate optometry to be not a good fit for him. “Sometimes,” according to Dr. Auyeung, “when you’re trying to figure out what you want, you have to know what you don’t want.”
He decided to open an independent sub-lease, which offers a kind of hybrid between a corporate setting and an exclusively private practice. In this modality, the company you are leasing from provides you with equipment and pays for your utilities; however, you are in charge of your own scheduling, marketing, billing, accounting, and you can even buy your own equipment if the space is big enough. Working in such an environment allowed him to test his business skills and gain experience, making the transition between corporate optometry and private practice smoother.
Like Dr. AuYeung, Dr. Hakanen has managed to successfully change modalities, doing regional work for a private practice before he began working in industry as a program manager and product developer at Ocusun. “Being in another modality first was absolutely necessary and I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he says. In fact, Dr. Hakanen says, it is better for those who wish to work in industry to start out in a different modality – the skills you learn in that context will often be quite valuable in an industry setting.
He recommends beginning with part-time industry work as supplementary income and slowly building up experience and connections. Networking is key – it’s important to form relationships with as many people in the industry as you can, both doctors and non-doctors. Dr. Hakanen has always been deeply interested in the products and technologies of optometry, and loves the close connection to new developments in these fields that industry work allows him.
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Dr. Smithson specializes in sports and performance vision as well as concussion rehabilitation at Northern Virginia Doctors of Optometry, a multiple-location, multiple-doctor practice. A former college athlete, Dr. Smithson’s chosen career has given him the opportunity to combine his interest in sports with his optometric training. He enjoys the wide range of situations he encounters in the context of sports and performance vision:
“It might be a concussion patient, it might be someone who needs to see me for a new pair of contact lenses as a 16-year-old baseball player, someone looking for visual performance enhancement, or an 85-year-old AMD patient who just wants to talk about the nationals.”
Despite what one might expect, his field offers great opportunities for women as well; some of his most successful colleagues, he notes, are women, such as Dr. Amanda Nanasy, the next chair of the Sports & Performance Vision Committee and team doctor for the Miami Dolphins. (Dr. O’Brien gives the further example of Dr. Jacqueline Theis, who set up a Neuro-Concussion clinic in the UC Berkeley football stadium.) For those interested in this specialization, he recommends checking out the Sports and Performance Vision Advocacy Network on the American Optometric Association website.
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Dr. Fulmer, who is from Huntsville, AL, opened Madison Eye Care Center – a private practice – with some friends last year, before which she had worked in a MD-OD medical referral center doing secondary and tertiary care. She notes that MD-OD practices can be very challenging and rewarding, since doctors there tend to deal more with chronic conditions such as glaucoma:
“You know that you’re making a difference in not only their ocular health, but systemic health as well.”
This modality can be quite lucrative, since most of the practices within it are big corporations or hospitals; however, she admits that there may be less opportunity for advancement than there is in other modalities. MD-OD practices also present a wonderful opportunity for networking, since they give you a great deal of contact with not only other optometrists but the wider medical world, including (obviously) ophthalmology.
In a wide-ranging conversation, the panelists discussed topics ranging from modality-specific challenges to the importance of supporting optometry as an overall field to the difficulties of dealing with “disruptors” (e.g. online services) and maintaining a forward-thinking approach to changes within the industry. Throughout the conversation, they drew upon their own diverse career experiences.