The Value of Having a Mentor in Optometry

By Jennifer Jabaley, OD

July 1, 2015

Most people underestimate the value of having a mentor in their career. However, a mentor can offer valuable insight to things only learned through experience in the field.

When I was offered my very first job upon graduation from optometry school, after discussion of salary, hours and start date, my new boss offered his first piece of advice: “Wear a lab coat.” I arched my eyebrows, huh? His reply: “If you want patients to think you’re a professional, then appear like a professional.”

Many of my optometry friends, in the first months of their careers, complained that patients often commented that they looked 12 years old or joked, where’s the real doctor? This seldom happened to me. With my petite stature and baby face, I could only assume the lab coat had helped my case. Perhaps my boss’s advice wasn’t so off the wall, after all.

In the months that followed, my new boss imparted many tidbits that were never found in any textbook: Apologize if you’re running behind schedule; Let the patient talk, but learn delicate ways to steer back on topic; Always pay attention to the tone of your voice; your patient will never sue a doctor they like.

All of those nuggets had little to do with textbook optometry, refractions and medical care of the eyes, but rather, were morsels of wisdom garnered through years of patient encounters only a mentor could share.

Mentors are experts in their fields and can offer solutions and insight when you are faced with unfamiliar obstacles. In optometry school, I was tested on closed angle glaucoma countless times. I knew the treatment regimen for that ocular emergency like the back of my hand. But filling in the answers on a test is quite different than facing a patient with the very condition you were tested on. I was in practice for only a few months when I had a patient with iris bombe angle closure. Inside my mind, I rattled off the steps to take. But I stood in the hallway, heart racing, paralyzed with anxiety.

My boss offered to take a look and confirmed my diagnosis. But, rather than tell me what to do, he made me recite the treatment. When he nodded in agreement, my nerves calmed and I could return to the patient with confidence. Intellectually, I knew the treatment plan, but having a mentor by my side during my first emergency offer his reassurance and simple guidance, allowed me to overcome uncertainty that accompanied inexperience. Experience is a valuable tool. It can’t be purchased or taught. But if you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor who will be willing to walk by your side and share their experiences.

A mentor provides an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, guiding you to acquire the tools and confidence to be successful. The word “encouragement” literally means “to give courage.” Optometrists new to the field often will find themselves in situations that school and internships failed to prepare them for. Red eyes that fail to heal. Unexplained decreased best visual acuity. The dreaded sudden onset double vision. These clinical conundrums often lead to panic in a new practitioner. Having a mentor encourage you, remind you that optometry is, after all, a practice, these simple statements of affirmation and reassurance provide the motivation all new clinicians need to improve their skills, and ultimately, their confidence.

Over time, a mentor helps you work toward independence, both clinically and as a business operator. So much time in school and in the early stages of an optometry career are focused on patient care. It would be easy to focus all your efforts on the clinical aspects of optometry. A mentor can help bridge that focus to include long-term business goals. When I was young in my career, it would have been easy to concentrate my financial planning solely on repayment of my student debt. My boss, however, encouraged me to immediately start saving for retirement and to begin to think about future practice options.

A mentor has a wealth of business experience in marketing, financial planning, staff management and daily operations that one semester of practice management could never cover. If one is interested in long-term practice ownership, a mentor is an invaluable resource for understanding your specific demographics, competition and patient population. A mentor can help you transition from an employee to an owner if that is your desired career path. They can help you align your short-term and long-term goals for a successful career.

All optometrists can benefit from having a mentor in their career. A good mentor will be a role model and confidante, sharing their wisdom, experience, encouragement, all while holding you accountable on your own career path.

Did you, and do you still, have mentors who have guided you along your career path in optometry? Are you a mentor yourself? What key lessons can an experienced mentor pass on to new ODs?

Jennifer Jabaley, OD, is a partner with Jabaley Eye Care in Blue Ridge, Ga. To contact her:

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