Professional Development

How Business Education Could Save Independent Optometry

By Roger Mummert
Content Director, Review of Optometric Business

July 11, 2018

At the recent AOA Optometry’s Meeting in Denver, I met with two different group of ODs, each one discussing the importance of business knowledge in managing an independent optometric practice.

One group insisted that business education courses need to be added to the curriculum in optometry school.

The other group, consisting of practice management educators from more than 20 optometry schools, said that they do, indeed, teach business courses (and have for many years), but struggle to get optometry students to pay attention to them.

How can there be such a disconnect? And on such a vital issue?

More importantly, does this disconnect produce a management skills gap that may threaten the survival of independent optometry?

The following explanations answer that question—in part:

Students tend to pay attention to what is relevant to their lives. Students are in school, not practice, and the business models of their future career course are an abstraction, one with varied possibilities.

In education, that which gets tested gets taught. The OD student’s primary focus is on acquiring clinical knowledge to pass their boards. There is no test of financial competency before entering practice, but perhaps there should be.

Business education is seat-of-the-pants. That was true for the mature ODs in the groups, who learned from older ODs and from hard-knocks. But today, with ever-more-fierce competition and changing consumer behavior, gaining a competitive edge requires more structured learning.

Herein lies the fundamental threat: For many emerging ODs, business knowledge may become relevant too late. And the lack of business savvy can have disastrous consequences that plunge new ODs into unsustainable debt, or leave mature ODs devoid of a retirement pathway they had counted on.

Third- and fourth-year students will tell you they plan to enter independent optometry on graduation. I witnessed an overwhelming show of hands saying so at a recent career symposium. But experience reveals a time lapse between graduation and practice ownership.

That time gap, about five to seven years, in the long run may be a serious challenge to the continuation of independent optometry.

What will happen in those 5-7 years?

Will emerging ODs begin to buy into mature practices, first as associates then as full owners? Will they acquire the business skills required to finance a practice expansion, manage a growing staff, maintain HIPAA compliance, negotiate a lease or refinance a loan? The list goes on and on.

Or in that time, will more and more emerging ODs chose to work for a chain, be an employee, and concentrate on building clinical skills? Further, will they buy into the consolidator’s proposition: Be the doctor you were trained to be, and leave the business side to the business experts.

And in that 5-7 years, will mature ODs capture opportunities to mentor associates, in business as well as clinically, and engineer their end-of-career transition?

We live in the “age of acceleration,” in the words of New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who offers this advice: “The notion that we can go to college for four years and then spend that knowledge for the next 30 is over. If you want to be a lifelong employee anywhere today, you have to be a lifelong learner.”

If independent optometry is to flourish, then business learning must be continuous. ODs of all ages must continue in clinical learning, which can be acquired on the job, in CE courses and journals. They must build business skills from business seminars, MBA programs, CE courses, and from resources like ROB. And ODs must polish their people skills, which can be refined each and every day in the practice of the great profession of optometry.

For ODs to succeed in practice—and for independent optometry to flourish—perfecting a business education must be a lifelong quest.

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