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NECO launches industry conversation about optometric education


Some 65 people from optometric industry and media gathered in early November with New England College of Optometry (NECO). 

Group photo of attendees at NECO’s meeting

Some 65 people from optometric industry and media gathered in early November with New England College of Optometry (NECO) administration and trustees in Boston to discuss optometric education at the inaugural Industry & Employer Relations Meeting.

The meeting was spearheaded by NECO President and CEO, Howard Purcell, OD, FAAO. Dr. Purcell stepped into his position in July 2018.

“I believed that I knew a lot about optometric education, so when I came in here I thought I understood the challenges,” he says. “I learned very quickly that I was not accurate in that assessment. For me, any partnership that you’re building, the more you can understand the challenges, the better the partnership can be.”

Meeting inception
Gary Y. Chu, OD, MPH, FAAO, NECO vice president of professional affairs, says that when NECO administrators were considering holding the meeting, they realized that relationships between the school and industry partners had become stagnant.

“When we started fleshing it out, we realized that we say we have a partnership, but we have been doing the same things for 10 years,” he says. “Our students’ time is precious, there is so much in the curriculum for them, so how do we do this more thoughtfully? Partners want students to come to events they hold, but there are so many and it comes down to students picking and choosing. Let’s bring everyone together to have a good conversation about what education looks like and how to move forward for the betterment of the profession.”

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Meeting structure

The meeting took place over two days at NECO’s main campus and Center for Eye Care. Attendees gathered on the main campus for a late-afternoon welcome reception, opening remarks from Drs. Purcell and Chu, and dinner.

The following morning, attendees toured NECO’s Center for Eye Care, heard presentations about NECO’s program from faculty, and posed questions to student panel and faculty panels. Attendees then broke into smaller groups to discuss optometric student applicant pool, challenges facing optometry students, partnering with industry colleagues, educating students on new technology, and the successes and challenges of optometric education.

Attendee and student feedback
NECO administration, faculty who were able to be present, and students on the panel say they are delighted with the strong presence of industry representatives and the quality of the discussion. Attendees say they are happy that a larger conversation about optometric education is taking place.

Among industry employers and the media, additional attendees included representatives from the American Academy of Optometry (AAO) and Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO). According to NECO administrators, the National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) was not invited but should have been, and the American Optometric Association (AOA) was invited but did not respond to the invitation.

Third-year NECO student-and soon to be third-generation OD-Lauren Thamel says that she hopes one of the biggest takeaways is for industry to realize that optometric education is not the same as it was 30 years ago.

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“There are different pressures now,” she says. “Students don’t get summers off anymore. You can’t work through school.”

She also says that her generation of ODs will better adapt to changes in the profession because change is their norm.

“I have grown up with optometry; I have seen it change in my time,” she says. “Even in our time in school, there is something new and our curriculum expands. We are able to change on the fly. When the auto refractor came out, that was the end of optometry. Then managed care and Warby Parker. We have found where we can help our patients. I don’t think optometry  is going anywhere. It will evolve as the needs of our patients evolve.”

Says AAO President Barbara Caffery, OD, PhD, FAAO: “We were strange bedfellows-Warby Parker, Luxottica, Johnson & Johnson Vision, LensCrafters, National Vision, VSP, and CooperVision-disparate entities with goodwill and creative ideas. I was amazed and eager to understand what would follow.”

Fourth-year NECO student Jason Huang says he hopes industry leaders will now have a better idea of the needs of future students.

“As we graduate and get into industry, we need to figure out how we can work together as a team in providing better care for patients as well as support students and help them learn what industry leaders can offer and utiliize their products and resources,” he says.

Says Johnson & Johnson Vision Head of North America Professional Relations Carol L. Alexander, OD, FAAO: “The meeting showcased a novel approach in the engagement of thought leaders from all facets of industry with a college of optometry. The transparent approach to sharing the perspectives of students, faculty, and administrators was valuable in our collective understanding of both the opportunities and challenges they face in a rapidly changing healthcare system.”

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Says Tom Duchardt, FAAO, director of professional relations and academic development at Alcon: “I was particularly pleased with the NECO leadership as they proactively work to change the narrative from ‘disruptive technology’ to ‘innovation adaptation.’ I look forward to next steps in the program.”

Dave Gibson, associate vice president of consumer eye care and customer development at Allergan, says it was great to see industry colleagues workshop and brainstorm on topics from quality applicants and student debt to the knowledge needed to be successful in optometry in the years ahead.

“While it’s well known that there are many heady topics and challenges for the profession, Drs. Purcell and Chu decided to start a conversation to do something about it,” he says. “Like all grand initiatives, success will be measured not just by starting the conversation, but on the actions taken from here. I have confidence in the leadership and tenacity of Dr. Purcell that this event was just the beginning.”

Next steps
NECO administration termed the meeting “inaugural”-and in fact NECO plans to make the gathering an annual event. But what the event will look like next year is not yet clear.

Dr. Purcell says that he has heard from key optometric opinion leaders who want to be part of the conversation.

In the meantime, meeting organizers plan to stay in touch with attendees over the next 12 months via workgroups on specific topics such as:
• Debt and cost of education
• Bias against corporate optometry/scope of practice
• Business of optometry
• Strategic partnerships with industry

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