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Charting your optometric career


After more than a decade of working in a MD/OD private practice, I found myself at a crossroads in my career. I spent this past year exploring many modes of practice to find the best fit for my next decade-or two or three.

“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.” – Steve Jobs

After more than a decade of working in a MD/OD private practice, I found myself at a crossroads in my career. I spent this past year exploring many modes of practice to find the best fit for my next decade-or two or three. I remembered my first day at Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), now Salus University, when we were encouraged to draw our ideal practice. My drawing was pretty idealistic looking back, a practice attached to my home with a lot of windows. Windows-are they even allowed in our exam rooms? And although working from home sounds great, especially as a mother of two young children, leaving work behind would be a challenge. 

More from Dr. O'Dell: Why noncompliance will ruin your perfect treatment plan 

Find a niche

As I started my residency at the Baltimore VA Hospital, all things posterior segment were my focus-diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, optic nerve disease, to name a few. I balanced out my ocular disease/academic setting by working weekends in commercial optometry-LensCrafters and Sears Optical. This training led me to my first long-term position in a bustling ophthalmology practice with support staff, technicians, and scribes where I spent 11 years. I was eager to grow my practice and fell in love with the patients I served. 

Then a funny thing happened. My focus expanded beyond the posterior segment, and I started to develop a passion for the anterior segment as well. Soon, I was finding myself more and more interested in ocular surface disease. As my interests shifted, I began to feel like I needed to make a change. My heart was dedicated to dry eye management, but a demanding patient load of complex eye disease patients and post-ops were a barrier to giving the time and dedication needed to establish the dry eye center of my dreams. The hunt was on for the best setting to launch a new endeavor.

Next: Exploring different modes of practice


Exploring different modes of practice

Over a period of three to five years, I started to research and consider different modes of practice to determine where a dry eye niche might best fit. Optometry is unique in that it provides many different modes of practice-sole practitioner, group OD practice, group MD/OD practice, hospital setting, research, academia, and commercial, to name a few. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages. Finding the best fit can sometimes be the challenge. 

The process to determine what was next for my career was long. The old saying, “Nothing good comes easy,” kept me focused and motivated to find the best fit.

What I learned most: I love optometry. I love talking to patients, educating patients, helping them see clearly, and I really love when I can successfully make their eyes feel more comfortable with their daily tasks. 

The idea that optometry should “own” dry eye disease was something else that resonated with me. And this is true, we have the skill set and are able treat this complex disease-why let it walk out the door untreated and undiagnosed? My original dream: a stand-alone dry eye center. This would be a place of referral from both MDs and ODs and even self-referrals. After many hours of research and discussing this business model, the timing was not ideal. Next option-establishing a dry eye center within an existing practice. One problem: I didn’t own a practice.

More from Dr. O'Dell: A stepwise approach to treating MGD

The importance of networking

Over the years, I have developed great relationships with optometrists locally and nationally by working on research projects, speaking, and being involved in organizations such as the American Academy of Optometry (AAO) and the American Optometric Association (AOA). Breaking the silence of my struggles to find the right fit for me was still a challenge. My loyalties to the practice I had spent many years were strong, and I feared losing my job before the time was right. Breaking the silence was what I needed to start discovering available opportunities.  Again, I found that optometry was there to support me. My colleagues were happy to privately discuss different modes of practice and recommend opportunities. I did a lot of talking over the past two years.  

Next: Follow your heart


Follow your heart

For me, the things I loved about an MD/OD practice to start were the same things that made me start looking for a change. As the volume of patients increased, my time spent with each one decreased. I started to miss the interpersonal relationships that are part of our profession that make it unique. The passion I’ve developed over the past seven years for the ocular surface and all things anterior segment still surprises me. My residency program was heavy on ocular disease of the posterior segment, especially glaucoma. I am happy to say I am joining a group OD practice near my hometown where I will have the opportunity to start a dry eye center-The Dry Eye Center of PA at Wheatlyn Eye Care. 

In life, change is the only constant, and it seems hard to believe sometimes, but change is good. It is important to set goals and find a niche. Network with colleagues with common interests and outside your interests to get a different perspective. Follow your heart, commit to something, and make it work.

Related: Diagnosing and treating dry eye with technology

Even though I am in the early stages of this new endeavor, doing the research and laying the foundation for success has been very rewarding. Although I am sure there will be other challenges and bumps in the road, I am excited to experience this next stage of my journey in optometry.


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