Are there too many optometrists?

August 15, 2014

I’m certain by now we’ve all heard a lot about the recent AOA manpower study from the Lewin group. What the study was not designed to do-and so did not answer-was the burning question we all have: are there too many optometrists?

Dr. Ernie BowlingI’m certain by now we’ve all heard a lot about the recent AOA manpower study from the Lewin group. The study was well thought out and executed and gives us a good idea about optometric manpower needs over the next decade. What the study was not designed to do-and so did not answer-was the burning question we all have: are there too many optometrists?       

Perspective is everything, so I think it all depends upon your perspective. Let’s take the town where I practice, for instance: there's an optometrist right next door to my office, one across the street, two within another mile, and 13 overall in a 10-mile radius. Add to that a large ophthalmology group also within a mile. So, from where I sit, well, yeah, there's too many of us. I contrast that with my former practices in rural Georgia, where I was the only OD in a 30-mile radius-I really felt overwhelmed at times. Yet that was long ago in a galaxy far, far away. So maybe the question isn't one of numbers but of distribution. I don't even want to argue that point.       

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I've been in practice for more years now than I care to admit, and I confess I've become a bit jaded. Yet, I remember those days when I taught at university and saw in my students the unbridled enthusiasm, and I recall that was what it was like for me waiting to enter this amazing profession. I had no concerns about manpower studies, or competitive pressures, or thoughts about running a business day to day. The only thing I thought about back then (when I still had some hair) was I was going to be an optometrist. I was going to care for my patients. Which was a damn sight better than what I had been doing before the folks at UAB took a chance on a broken-down coal miner with a marginal grade point average.     

That's the great thing about our country. Stories abound of people coming to this country with nothing-yet with hard work and sacrifice made better lives for themselves and their families. If it is someone's dream to become an optometrist, then all the data and studies in the world are not going to sway his dream. Who is anyone to deny someone that opportunity? The same opportunity all of us practicing ODs were given. So now that we've achieved our goals, we're going to now tell someone else he can't? Nope, that's not the American way. There are arguments, of course, that the student pool is becoming too diluted and that the quality of graduates may suffer. Still, the laws of supply and demand have always been at work, and our profession, unlike ophthalmology residencies, is not regulated by the government, so the demand for optometry schools will continue until the demand from new students slows. Should there be a discussion of unregulated growth of the profession? Of course. We owe that to our profession and to prospective optometrists.

So Ernie, what happens if some new grad comes your town and opens up? Well, first I’d sincerely wish her luck (did you read how many there are already?) and then I reckon I'd just have to work harder and smarter. I have to have confidence in my own abilities. This is America, where anything is possible through hard work. Hard work. None of us are guaranteed success; heck, we’re not even guaranteed tomorrow. But in this great land of ours, we are at the very least guaranteed the freedom to try and achieve our dreams. Every one of us who practices this profession has fulfilled that dream. Let's welcome and encourage those young people who have the courage and desire to try.ODT

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