Study groups can help their members via group discussion and sharing. If you’re looking to form or join a study group, find out what leads to success.
A study group provides a forum for members who have a common interest in sharing information on numerous topics, such as office management, ocular pathology, new equipment and technology, networking, and more. As our offices change with additions like electronic health records, optical coherence tomography (OCT), Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) and Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS), it provides topics for group discussion on how to implement them into the office. This discussion is generally not available at local, state and national meetings where you listen to lectures and perhaps take notes.
I belong to a study group in the Dallas area that has been meeting monthly for more than 40 years. Topics such as those mentioned above along with hundreds more have been discussed at our meetings throughout the years. We have 16 active members and six reserve members who like to attend when a member has a conflict. While some members have retired, at least half of the members have been in the group more than 30 years.
Having the right members is the most important factor in forming a group. Keep these points in mind when putting a group together.
• Ensure members are knowledgeable and willing to share information.
• Members should be compatible and enjoy the time spent with each other. Although we’ve had differing opinions in our 40 years, we have not had an argument between members.
• Recruit members who take the time to prep before they lead discussion on a topic at a meeting.
• Members should be dedicated to attending unless they have a conflict. If you have the right members and interesting meetings, then members will want to attend and regret it when they are not able to make the meeting. If members routinely miss meetings without a conflict, they should be replaced.
• Members need to be willing to share information about their office procedures that may be helpful to their peers even if they are located near one another.
• The size of the group can vary from five to 18 members. In a rural area or small town, potential members may be limited. However, more than 18 members may make discussion more difficult.
• The group can consist of both optometrists and ophthalmologists. (Our group has 13 optometrists and three ophthalmologists.)
Our group meets monthly, and meetings can occur as often as the group chooses. Some groups meet quarterly or even less if members are not located in the same area. In lieu of our December meeting we have a holiday party at a restaurant that includes members’ significant others.
Our groups’ topics have changed significantly over the years. When we began the study group, optometrists were not able to use therapeutic pharmaceutical agents, so discussions focused on contact lenses and practice management. The meetings have evolved-just as the courses taught at all optometric meetings have-and reflect the more complex and detailed subject matter, especially in areas of diagnosis and treatment of ocular disease.
Meeting length is usually two hours-our meetings are nonstop. At a typical meeting for our group, two or three members will present PowerPoint discussion on topics such as interesting cases, lecture notes, a journal article, or a topic on which the member has special knowledge or has researched. Other members may ask questions or have comments during this 20- to 30-minute presentation. Often, speakers distribute a handout on the topic on which they are speaking.
The leader conducts the meetings, allowing time for members to share their thoughts or information while keeping the meeting moving at a comfortable pace. The leader as well as other members prepare brief topics for discussion, such as who has tried this new contact lens or new medication and what are the results, to ensure a full agenda for the meeting. Other discussion topics have ranged from scleral contact lenses, amniotic membranes, to employee annual bonuses. On some occasions, a member has asked the leader before the meeting begins if he could have the group's opinion on a subject or share an interesting case for discussion.
The meetings may be held wherever the group agrees; most study group meetings are held at an office or home. If the group is located in a large metropolitan area, it is best to have the meetings at a central location.
Our meetings include dinner, allowing members to visit and eat for an hour. The dinner is often provided by a vendor who is given 20 minutes at the beginning of the meeting to update the group about its products and/or services. Sometimes the vendor chooses to host the group at a local upscale restaurant if a special guest speaker is invited to address the group. If no vendor sponsors dinner, then the group splits the cost of the meal.
Additionally, a few times a year we ask a specialist to speak to the group. Past speakers have included a retina, glaucoma, and oculoplastic specialist. For example, the dean of University of Houston College of Optometry recently gave a talk on research in myopia causes and prevention. Because these presentations take place in the relaxed setting of a study group, the atmosphere allows for more open discussion and questions than a typical lecture.
Having an effective leader is an important element of a study group so that there is a robust agenda and organization to the meeting. Failure to do so will likely result in a loss of interest and low attendance. A group can change leadership every year or two, or, if the current leadership is working well, the leadership can be kept indefinitely.
Besides the leader, other positions may be needed. For instance, we have a member who acts as the secretary and keeps notes of the discussion at the meeting. These notes are summarized and prepared in a newsletter that is emailed to members and reserve members before the next meeting. The newsletter can contain other information related to the group such as who missed the meeting, past and upcoming guest speakers, and next meeting date. We also have a treasurer who tracks our small dues that go toward the cost of beverages and miscellaneous small expenses.
The group should be careful about discussing their specific fees to avoid antitrust violation.
A group can negotiate prices with vendors that may be better discounts than what individual members are currently receiving from a buying group. Although our group has not spent significant time exploring this, we have received some better discounts than some of our buying groups.
Besides learning from each other, the group inspires members to keep up with the rapid pace of change that our profession experiences. In working day to day, it is difficult to stay abreast of what changes we need to make, but group discussion and sharing knowledge helps in making those adjustments.
Members of our group often say that they look forward to each meeting and that there would be large void without the group. In my opinion, if you form a study group in your community, you will have the same result.