Focus on recovery, renewal and the future at Optometry’s Meeting® 2021

June 25, 2021
After two years apart and tremendous challenges, doctors of optometry, students and paraoptometrics enthusiastically reunite at Optometry’s Meeting® 2021.
House of Delegates Oath

The AOA House of Delegates opens during the 2021 Optometry’s Meeting® with the Optometric Oath.

The past year has been like no other for optometry, AOA’s leadership said Thursday at Optometry’s Meeting®, yet the association, affiliates and members rose to the occasion, and even thrived in some ways, in difficult conditions.

In his address to members in Denver, AOA Executive Director Jon Hymes noted, after a much-awaited return to the profession’s premier meeting, the goal was to focus on recovery, renewal and the future. Yet, the Covid-19 crisis revealed two truths.

“No. 1: Doctors of optometry have made an important difference for our country through this year of historic crises,” Hymes said. “The second: Our organizations­—the affiliates and the AOA—have made an important difference for our doctors. Just as all of you adapted and overcame to deliver the safest, highest-quality care, the affiliates and the AOA adapted and overcame to live up to our mission: to advocate for the profession and to serve doctors of optometry in meeting the health and vision care needs of the public.

“The AOA and the affiliates helped optometry to answer America’s urgent call for help,” he added. “As a result, doctors of optometry and your essential role in the delivery of primary health care is—from coast to coast—a settled matter of enacted law, finalized regulation, emergency declarations, public health proclamations and community-by-community clinical reality. It is health-care fact, something I could not have said any of the 15 previous times I’ve been privileged to report to this House (of Delegates). In March of 2020, in the midst of the most far-reaching and deadly public health crisis in a century, doctors of optometry met the moment with knowledge, skills, compassion and courage that have defined the now accelerating pace of its advancement.”

AOA President William T. Reynolds, O.D., added: “Because of the hard work of a lot of people, AOA is coming out of the pandemic stronger than when we entered it.”

AOA pulls together

How did they do it? 

  • By delivering safe, urgent and emergent care to patients amid the crisis, keeping them out of hospital emergency departments coping with coronavirus caseloads.“In so many ways, that’s the story of optometry and the pandemic,” Hymes said. “Lives saved. Patients prioritized. Health protected. Additional community spread prevented. By doctors who fulfilled their oath and faithfully served their communities, making a difference for our country. Doctor after doctor has shared with me that their practices and their bonds with patients have grown stronger because of how they responded to the crisis. They share, too, that optometry has become better recognized and even more respected.”

  • By adopting a Board of Trustees plan that put members’ needs front and center. An immediate two-month dues waiver, membership-wide, a dues and assessment freeze, an organization-wide reprioritization to focus on crisis relief, creation of a $500,000 fund to assist distressed affiliates; and establishment of an AOA-led, industry-supported Recovery Fund under Optometry Cares®—The AOA Foundation. “It wasn’t just throwing a sum of money—in this case, a $5.5 million commitment—at a problem, it was a blood, sweat and tears commitment to help doctors in immediately impactful ways and to see things through,” Hymes said.
  • By maintaining a dual focus to serve as the central information resource for our doctors, students and paraoptometrics to turn to any time of day or night and to take optometry’s story to policymakers, payers, media and public. There were 11 AOA webinars between March 17, 2020, and February 22, 2021, viewed live and downloaded more than 26,000 times. Information presented on the webinars helped doctors claim $2.1 billion in federal crisis relief. Hymes said: “These sessions also brought the profession together in big numbers when everyone felt the most isolated. In gathering and delivering this information, we knew that every dollar in Federal physician grant and forgivable loan aid that could be secured, would help save practices and jobs and allow students dependent on debt relief to continue their education.”
  • By its unabating advocacy efforts. “We worked to ensure doctors of optometry were able to obtain PPP, EIDL and HHS money,” Dr. Reynolds said. “This focus helped us seize legislative opportunities that arose, in part because of the pandemic,” he added. “We were able to get HHS to declare us as an ‘essential health care provider.’ We received the right to give vaccinations, the VA repealed the ban on doctors of optometry doing laser procedures and we were able to get Anthem to discontinue the practice of automatically down-coding optometric services. We have our best shot in decades of being re-included in the National Health Service Corps loan forgiveness program. Our DOC Access and robocall legislation has increased legislative support and an excellent chance of moving forward, and the Enhanced Medicare Bill has vision benefits embedded in the medical plan where they belong. Our members and volunteers have stepped up, too.”

Throughout the crisis, AOA leaders, doctors, staffs and partners showed their mettle, including Barbara L. Horn, O.D., and Dr. Reynolds, O.D., who served as AOA president during this time.

“... their love for the profession, their respect for colleagues, their great wisdom and experience, desire to serve and unparalleled command of optometry and its essential and expanding role in health care guided them in all that they did through historically uncertain times,” Hymes said. “Their leadership qualities shined through in every early morning, late-night phone call and in the countless crisis response meetings they led.”

Optometry in the vanguard’

Highly decorated NASA astronaut and retired U.S. Navy flight surgeon Capt. Jerry Linenger, M.D., Ph.D., delivered the keynote address during the Optometry’s Meeting opening event, supported by Johnson & Johnson Vision, on Thursday. The veteran of multiple shuttle missions, including a fateful, five-month stint on the Russian space station Mir, Dr. Linenger spoke about overcoming isolation and persevering in the face of incredible challenges.

Beyond talking about the separation of being off-planet, Dr. Linenger described the relative loneliness serving aboard Mir as the only American astronaut alongside his two Russian cosmonaut colleagues—a language barrier often frustrating their work. However, when master alarms began blaring one day and Dr. Linenger saw the faintest whisps of smoke, he had no trouble understanding his colleagues: “Fire!”

For 15 minutes, the Mir crew battled a blaze that threatened to breach the space station’s hull. It would come to be described as the most severe fire aboard an orbiting spacecraft to date. With the fire extinguished, Dr. Linenger and the crew stayed awake for 48 hours to monitor their vital signs before allowing themselves to sleep.

“One thing I’ve learned is that you’ve got to give it all you got, give it all your fight, but when that fire’s out, you need to leave it behind and get ready for the next challenge,” he told attendees. “COVID-19 was a challenge that you all can relate with—but it’s time we learn from it and press on to get ready for the next challenge, whatever it may be.”

In describing his homecoming, Dr. Linenger recounted the mental—and physical—toll of prolonged spaceflight.

Noting the shift in cerebral fluids from protracted weightlessness, astronaut’s globes may experience a flattening, which is why NASA’s doctors send various diopter-strength glasses on the spaceflight to counteract vision troubles. Dr. Linenger, in displaying a photograph of himself in front of his own recent retinal image at Johnson Space Center, couldn’t be more appreciative of the work that doctors of optometry provide.

“Optometry is truly in the vanguard of astronaut health,” Dr. Linenger said. “My hat’s off to you all. Astronauts have great respect for your profession and what you all do protecting our health long-term.”

In other events from Optometry’s Meeting, AOA awardees were honored and, for the first time, AOA volunteers gathered for the AOA Leaders Summit for a second time in 2021. The summit was initially held virtually in January.

Stay in the know by following Optometry’s Meeting social accounts on Facebook and Twitter, and watch for daily news updates from the profession’s premier meeting, posted at aoa.org/news. Get a feel for the buzz by following the official hashtag, #OM2021.

Immediate Past President William T. Reynolds, O.D., cuts the ribbon to signify the opening of the Exhibit Hall at Optometry's Meeting® 2021 in Denver, Colorado.

Members visiting AOAExcel's booth in the Exhibit Hall.

AOA members reunite in the Exhibit Hall at the 2021 Optometry’s Meeting® in Denver.

Exhibit Hall visitors receive their Eye Deserve More t-shirts; an AOA campain that stresses the patients deserve more thorough examinations, more expert analysis and more personalized care than they would through an online vision test.

AOA Past President David A. Cockrell, O.D., speaking in the House of Delegates.

The American Optometric Student Association board gathers at Optometry's Meeting. From left, President, Ryan Funai; Vice President, Jaime Antonio; Secretary, Gabrielle Magee; Treasurer, Patrick Stifter; and Immediate Past President Alexander Bennett, O.D.

Attendees of Optometry's Meeting® 2021 take to dancing to celebrate the return of an in-person Optometry's Meeting.

Jerry Linenger, M.D., Ph.D., Optometry's Meeting keynote speaker, discusses his time in space, including a dramatic five-month mission aboard the decaying Russian Mir space station.

Incoming President Robert C. Layman, O.D., addresses the Optometry's Meeting® crowd.

Immediate Past President William T. Reynolds, O.D., presents Arkansans for Healthy Eyes the AOA State Advocacy Award.

Michelle Welch, O.D., recieves the 2021 Distinguished Service Award.

Belinda Starkey, O.D., receives the 2021 Optometrist of the Year award.

Erick Henderson, O.D., receives the 2021 Young Optometrist of the Year award.

Lillian Kalaczinski, O.D., receives the 2021 Optometric Educator of the Year award.

Attendees participate in the Optometry Cares 5K Run/Walk.

Samantha Serrano receives the 2021 Paraoptometric Community Service award.

George Ballato, CPOA, receives the 2021 Paraoptometric of the Year award.

AOA members reunite at the 2021 Optometry’s Meeting® in Denver.

AOA members reunite at the 2021 Optometry’s Meeting® in Denver.

AOA volunteer Johndra McNeely, O.D., celebrates AOA successes of the past year with colleagues at the 2021 Leaders Summit kickoff event. AOA's dedicated volunteers, who typically gather once a year to chart a course for the future, are meeting twice in 2021. Committees came together in person at Optometry's Meeting to continue the work they started earlier this year.

A panel of AOA volunteers discuss the challenges and successes of 2021 during the 2021 Leaders Summit kickoff event at Optometry’s Meeting® in Denver.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force Chair Jacqueline M. Bowen, O.D., provides an update on actions to help the AOA and the profession become more welcoming and inclusive during the House of Delegates at the 2021 Optometry’s Meeting®.

The AOA Board of Trustees recite the Optometric Oath as the AOA House of Delegates opens during the 2021 Optometry’s Meeting®.

The AOA House of Delegates opens during the 2021 Optometry’s Meeting® with the Optometric Oath.

The AOA House of Delegates opens during the 2021 Optometry’s Meeting® with the Optometric Oath.

Optometry’s Meeting® offers over 120 hours of cutting-edge, expert-led educational programming to attendees.

The AOA is leading a yearlong dialogue on how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting the eye health of children across the country, and Optometry’s Meeting® attendees are learning the guidelines for managing a young population with prolonged device use.

AOA Executive Director Jon Hymes addresses the House of Delegates at the 2021 Optometry’s Meeting®.

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