Women in Optometry -- How Can We Make This Profession Great?

9:26 PM

In just 10 days I have the pleasure of speaking as a panelist for Allergan's VIEW (Visionary Insights for Eye Care Women) luncheon at my state's optometric society meeting.  It was such a great honor to be chosen as a speaker, representing the changing face of the new generation of optometrists--a profession dominated by females. More students than ever are graduating with their doctorate in optometry (when I first enrolled there were 16 schools in the USA, now there are 21 with more scheduled to open in the coming years).  And more students than ever are females (there is a reported 60-65% female enrollment in optometry schools across there country).

Why are so many women pursuing optometry, especially when faced with the negativity of many optometrists in today's healthcare marketplace?  There are many reasons that would appeal to stereotypic gender norms:

  •  optometry is a flexible career, with part-time work available for family-minded doctors
  •  shorter lenght of time in school (a 4 year program instead of 4 plus 4 or more years of residency in an MD program)
  •  no surgeries, so no blood / lower stress, no life or death discussions
But we all know that for many women, these perceived "female-friendly" points may not have had any influence on their career decision at all.  My personal opinion is that optometry is appealing as a career in general, not just to women.  More than ever, women are driven to pursue higher education, and as such they are finding careers in medicine, law, and other professional degrees.  But where optometry really separates itself from other professions is the ability to focus on one topic, and become an expert at that.  Optometry is a career that appeals to the detail-oriented (maybe there are more of females with this talent/curse than males??).  You spend the entire day looking at one body part, talking about one body part, measuring and calculating minuscule changes in that body parts length and curvature.  You talk about eyes all day long.   To me, as a woman, I love having that focus, the ability to pour my entire body of knowledge and study into the smallest of details about the human eye.  Thinking of being an expert on the entire body sounds just ludicrous to me -- I don't know how primary care doctors can manage so much at once.  As an optometrist, I am the doctor you see for all eye-related questions and concerns-- the eye specialist.  You can't get much more rewarding than that for someone that loves details.

With that being said, I am not immune to the pinch of negativity in my industry. I feel my eyes are more open than ever to the uncertainties of healthcare in today's world.  I have seen the profession of optometry struggle under the weight of reduced insurance reimbursements and general perception of the value of an eye exam.  Eye exams reimburse very little through most vision insurances (between $40-50 for a comprehensive exam on average).  In the past, doctors have offset those terrible margins by relying on product sales, but glasses and contact lens marketplaces have expanded (like all products) into the realm of the internet, and doctors are feeling the heat to see more and more patients every day.  In many cases this means compromised ability to focus on the details that made our profession so unique and rewarding -- the time to discuss all of the health benefits of the exam, to investigate dry eye, ocular allergies, and UV exposure changes that affect the eye and vision.  The eye is the only part of the body to assess the blood vessels with a live view, and most of my patients are surprised to learn that I am screening them for hypertension, cholesterol issues, and diabetes during their eye exam.

So why do so few people in the general population not know that your eye exam is an important health screening?  Most people are under the misconception that if you can see, your eyes are healthy.  If you read this website routinely, you know how many times I have debunked this myth.  In most cases, if your vision is affected by an ocular disease, it is too late to improve vision, even with glasses or contact lenses.  

My charge to all optometrists, new and old, female and male, is to embrace this profession for the specialist career that it is.  We need to educate at every chance we get what we are seeing when we look at our patient's eyes.  We need to take medical responsibility for the eye -- we are the primary EYE care provider after all.  We are who you need to see for a red eye, dry eye, burning eye, blurry eye, watery eye.  You name it; we are eyes.  Embrace the medical training we have and promote it!  This is the way to bring optometry into 2014, and the new wave of female optometrists are going to be the industry leaders to usher this change in patient perception.

If you are a female optometrist or optometry student, please comment and let me know what struggles you have faced or concerns that you have about our career and our role as female doctors in shaping its future.  I want to hear from you, so that I can bring these topics to my VIEW panel discussion, and the greater audience of online readers and industry leaders!

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  1. I start school next fall (YAY!) and I will be part of that male minority. It's going to be interesting to go from a very male dominated profession (military officer) to a more female dominated profession.

  2. Congrats on your enrollment! My graduating class was about 50/50 male to female, and it was very much a close-knit family. You will be making the best networking connections and lasting friendships during your 4 years so enjoy!

  3. Thanks! I'm pretty excited to start. Looking forward to meeting new people. I can definitely see how you develop close friendships after seeing the same faces and going through the same struggles for 4 years!
    Where I am headed, it's been about 75/25 female to male but don't mind it. I think it is great that many women are getting into this field. It's a shame that there used to be a negative stigma placed on women going into the STEM fields. It's great that many companies (like your newest post) are helping women gain a foothold into many of these fields.