The laws of the optometric jungle for the class of 2015

June 11, 2015

Congratulations to you, your loved ones, professors, and especially your bankers and lenders. Welcome to the jungle. There are some laws in here you need to know about.

I always hoped I could don that seafoam green doctoral hood that’s been hanging in the back of my closet for 25 years and address a group of eager graduating optometrists on the cusp of lurching forth into their careers, but nobody ever asked.

I know, right? Go figure.  

But lookie what I found-one of those boxy, retro studio microphones with a big, fat “Optometry Times” stamped on it! Wait just one sec…

Tap, tap, tap. Hellooooo? Is this thing on? Anybody out there? Ahem.

 

Dear Optometry Class of 2015

Congratulations to you, your loved ones, professors, and especially your bankers and lenders. Welcome to the jungle. There are some laws in here you need to know about.

Related: Did I choose optometry, or did optometry choose me?

But first, take a moment to revel in the moment. By now, you’ve hopefully had a few moments alone with your diploma, just you and your ink. Stare at it, run your fingers over it, say, “Hello, Dr. (fill in your name here)” aloud if you like.

Now, fold that well-deserved sheepskin back in its cover, get Mom to frame it, whatever. Because from here on out, if you want respect, you’re not going to be able to rely on that title alone and the fact that you survived a grueling gauntlet to get it.

Next: If you want respect, earn it

 

If you want respect, earn it

That’s what my residency preceptor told me when I went to him complaining about how the clinic staff was treating me my first few months out. I was working hard and trying to be a part of the team, but I still had ophthalmic techs with a high school education hiding patients from me because they thought I was too green to care for them.

He listened patiently. When I was done, he barely looked up from his early ‘90s Texas Instruments laptop and said, “If you want respect, earn it.”

Related: Earning a spot on the medical team

He was right. Nobody cares where you went to school, what honors and awards you collected, or what your class rank was. Patients look at you and evaluate your ability to manage their problems. Potential employers and partners look at you and ask what value you can bring to their organization or practice. Vision plan administrators look at you and think, “Fresh meat!”

It’s pretty much on you now. It’s not the initials behind the name, but the name in front of the initials that matters the most. 

Next: Those initials behind your name

 

Those initials behind your name

Speaking of those initials, don’t ever let anyone limit you or tell you that you can’t learn to do procedure X or prescribe treatment Y because somehow those initials behind your name give you a terminal case of brain lock. For them, I have two more initials-BS.

The old optometry/ophthalmology turf war battleground is littered with steaming piles of it. The biggest battles are over, but a few firefights break out every now and then, like soldiers taking pot shots across an ophthalmic DMZ.

Related: OMD resident attacks ODs in blog-ODs respond

The generals at headquarters still plot and strategize. But all along the front line, the troops in the trenches are starting to come out of their bunkers, shake hands, and trade survival tips like real soldiers exchange cigarettes. The truth is, they need you, and you need them-and our patients need all of us to deliver the kind of care they need.

Don’t assume anything. Some ODs may be against you, while other OMDs may be for you. I’ve seen it all. You can’t always tell who’s on your side just by what color jersey they’re wearing.

Next: Clear your own path

 

Clear your own path

And while we’re on BS, that’s what some ODs are feeding you when they tell you that you have to start as an associate in a traditional, independent optometry practice, or start up cold just like they did, in order to be a true professional. I heard the same thing 25 years ago when I was getting started. It’s not true.

On those rare occasions when I dared tell my classmates and professors the style of practice I envisioned that aligned with my interests and goals, they looked at me funny because such a model hardly even existed yet. “But how will you build equity?” they asked.

Related: The first doctor is often the smartest

My wife, a CPA, listened to all that and took it in. One day during a corporate-sponsored career seminar we were attending my senior year, she leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, “It’s only equity if you can sell it.”

Smart and prescient, that wife of mine. Two reasons, among many, that I married her.

Don’t get me wrong-I hope independent practice remains a viable option for many of you. Without a doubt, it’s been one of the pillars of progress for our profession. There are some fine groups and individuals out there eager to teach you the ropes if you’ve got that particular fire burning within you.

But it won’t be possible for all, and that’s okay. Neither the world, nor the profession, will come to a screeching halt if the numbers of you practicing in other settings increases. That loud noise you hear saying otherwise is the roar of old dinosaurs-and we all know what happened to them.

Keep razor sharp that bright, shiny machete bequeathed to you by your school. Hack away at the dense foliage until you come to spot in the jungle that you can claim as your own and start clearing.

Carving out your niche will take more than one a Crocodile Dundee-sized dagger, however. You’ve got to continue adding other survival tools to your skills belt, maybe a master’s, or extra training and specialty expertise in a slot not presently occupied by someone else around you.

Next: What it's all about

 

What it’s all about

The jungle can be a dark and dangerous place, and with the healthcare landscape and all its current upheavals, more so than ever. But it’s also beautiful and full of wonders. Even on my worst days, I can usually soothe myself to sleep at night with a decent-enough glass of cabernet and the thought that I’ve helped my patients see better, saved their sight-or even their life.

That’s a feeling that will never grow old. It will be like smelling salts for the soul when you start to get burned out, tired, and faint. I still get high on the fumes of great saves that I made years ago. And just when I’m getting cranky enough to quit, along comes another one. It’ll be the same for you.

When you come upon my little clearing in the jungle, stop and say hello. I’ve got a nice hut with a thatched roof, a hammock, and a little plot of earth that I try to keep productive and weed-free. You’ll find me listening to some classic rock, along with the Alabama Shakes and the new Mumford & Sons album.

I know some of you don’t like their updated, electrified sound. But hey, you can’t keep strumming the same old banjo chords forever. Everything changes. That’s the one law of the jungle that rules them all.

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