When the Student Becomes the Doctor: Maintaining Knowledge and Skill After Graduation 

As a new graduate, keeping up with the ever-changing world of optometry can be a daunting experience. After years of seemingly non-stop lectures in school, I personally was tempted by the idea of coasting by with online continuing education that required minimal effort. It quickly became clear to me, however, just how fast things change in healthcare. There is a lot more value to staying up to date than just getting enough credit to maintain a license. Keeping up with new available drops, surgeries, and research has helped me offer quality care to my patients far beyond the basics I learned in optometry school and externships. I have come to learn that there are many ways to expand clinical knowledge outside of direct clinical experience. 

For me, continuing education was the most obvious method of keeping up to date with new developments in the field of optometry. This comes in many forms including in-person vs. online, local vs. national level, and OD-only vs. combined OD/MD. I found local meetings to be particularly enjoyable. These are often offered through state associations as well as local clinics. They are a great way not only to get some credits but also to socialize with optometrists in the area. I also really enjoy getting to know local ophthalmologists who often lecture or attend these local meetings themselves.

Another great source of continuing education is national meetings. American Academy of Optometry (AAO) and American Optometric Association (AOA), for example, host annual meetings in different locations each year. One perk of this is the opportunity to visit another part of the country – I personally will take any excuse to travel. It can also be a great way to meet up with classmates following graduation. Online continuing education is a convenient method to stay up to date without having to leave home – this has become more prevalent in the times of COVID. Some meetings may even offer the option for an in-person or online course, which allows you to have some flexibility when case rates are high. 

One way to build more hands-on clinical experience is completing a residency. Truth be told, I was initially reluctant to consider residency. The idea of taking a reduced salary for a year was especially painful after seeing the final total of my student loans. However, I found the experience to be invaluable and would recommend it to every student I meet. The opportunity to see a high patient volume while under the supervision of experts in the field increased my clinical decision-making skills tenfold. I completed my training in corneal and refractive surgery and was amazed by the type of cases I was exposed to. Conditions I now see maybe once a year in private practice became routine for me during residency. At many sites, you also have the opportunity to participate in clinical trials – I was involved in nine different studies just by being at a research-heavy clinic! Plus, with only 26% of optometry students pursuing a residency, it is a great way to set yourself apart from other applicants when it comes time to look for a job.  

Board certification through the American Board of Optometry (ABO) is an excellent avenue to keep current with best practices and guidelines once you are out of school and in practice. This not only serves to differentiate yourself from other new graduates in the field but also to expand clinical knowledge. The first step to becoming board certified involves completing an application to ensure eligibility. In order to sit for the exam, three years of clinical experience or a residency are required. If residency has not been completed, additional activities such as fellowship, AAO diplomacy, and continuing education can be used to meet the requirements. The test is very similar to part two of national boards – it tests on clinical knowledge and skills, not didactic details. Upon passing the exam, you are awarded the title of Diplomate of the American Board of Optometry.

To maintain certification, ABO members complete maintenance of certification activities throughout the year. This includes self-study assessments, self-assessment modules, and continuing education. Personally, I have found the mini-assessments, given three times per year, to be even more helpful than traditional continuing education. They involve reading a provided set of articles on a particular subject (i.e. anterior segment disease) and completing an online 25-question quiz. The subject changes every time and ranges from binocular vision to contact lenses. The knowledge is all very clinically relevant and a great refresher on current standards of practice. Another big perk of ABO certification includes quarterly, top-notch online continuing education courses offered for free. 

Whatever your mode of practice, I think we can all agree that lifelong education is crucial to providing quality care for our patients. Whether you are one year out of practice or fifty, there is always more to learn as medical providers. Fortunately, there is no shortage of excellent opportunities to keep growing as clinicians and provide top-tier care for our patients. 

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