Born to serve: Active duty paraoptometric professionals provide critical care

September 20, 2023
September is Paraoptometric Appreciation Month, celebrating optometric practice staff around the country. Two paraoptometric professionals who provide eye care as active-duty veterans in the United States Armed Forces share their stories.
SSGT Martinez with a military eye care patient at base

Main photo by Christian A. Martinez, SSgt, USAF, CPOT; In-article photo by Candace Fletcher, CMSAF, USAF, CPOT

Candace Fletcher is a recently retired Air Force Ophthalmic Career Field Manager at the rank of Chief Master Sgt. (E9). During her career in the military, she was also a practicing paraoptometric professional for the United States Air Force. She was uniquely tasked with providing care in potentially dangerous and demanding settings—a job that required patience, dedication and a desire for continuous learning. She also holds her certification as a Certified Paraoptometric Technician (CPOT), which she says was essential to her success.  

Fletcher providing eye care to patient in 2008That is why optometric practice staff such as Fletcher, who operate in active-duty environments, are being highlighted during Paraoptometric Appreciation Month. They are tasked with managing multiple roles and responsibilities in the military beyond vision care, which can be challenging. Their commitment and passion for the profession are to be celebrated and honored during optometry’s only formal observance paying tribute to optometric practice staff.

“Vision is a critical component of a person’s quality of life. When I dealt with my first uveitis episode, I was scared, couldn’t see and had extreme photophobia. The [optometric] staff reassured me and took outstanding care of my vision needs,” says Fletcher, who changed fields after this powerful experience with optometric staff at her military base. “Techs are essential in gathering patient history and data for further assessment. Our ability to put a patient at ease, while gathering info and conducting testing, enables the provider to focus more on their evaluations.” 

Giving back, expanding horizons in optometric staff care

Staff Sgt. Cristian Martinez, CPOT, also believes paraoptometric professionals play a critical role in vision care. Martinez took the leap into optometry when he joined the United States Air Force in 2017, after asking his recruiter to be placed in the medical field; and six years later, he is “grateful to have this job in the Air Force” and really enjoys helping others.

Just this year he was able to utilize his skills as a paraoptometric professional during a military operation in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, in Saipan. They helped a community in need that had been recently affected by health insurance issues—supporting the critical eye care needs of nearly 1,000 people in just under two weeks.

Martinez shares more about the importance of quality optometric support staff in both civilian and military settings:

“Not only are paraoptometric professionals important, but I also think they are vital to the field. I’ve worked with many optometrists, and I’m certain that they all would agree. In my experience as a technician in the military, the whole flow of patient care depends on the technician. It’s the technician’s responsibility to work up the patient as quickly and efficiently as possible. As the technician you want to be efficient enough, so the optometrist gets to maximize their time with the patient.”

Importance of continuing education for paraoptometric professionals

Both Fletcher and Martinez have experienced firsthand the impact a paraoptometric professional can have on the patient—whether civilian or military. However, they both agree that continuing education (CE) was vital in taking their knowledge and patient care to the next level.

“Things change in medicine. In order for us to stay sharp and relevant, it’s important to stay educated on the latest vision updates,” shares Fletcher. “I love being a para, and I’m so thankful that AOA provides CE to keep me informed and sharp.”

Martinez believes CE through the AOA’s EyeLearn Professional Development Hub is important because “as a paraoptometric, you want to be aware of new practices/techniques being used. You may learn a new skill that benefits you and your clinic.” He added that the field of paraoptometrics will “continue to evolve, so it is important that we stay in the loop as much as possible to provide the best care available to our patients.”

Elevating your career through paraoptometric certification

Many paraoptometric professionals stay current with the eye care field and are stewards of the practices they support through certification. Fletcher and Martinez secured their CPOT certifications for their work in the military—serving both personal and professional purposes. There are several other certifications available, such as Certified Paraoptometric, Certified Paraoptometric Assistant and Certified Paraoptometric Coder, all dependent upon the practitioner’s career level and desire.

Fletcher explains how the requirement to attain her certification ended up being a blessing in disguise. “Initially, I only pursued certification in 2008 because it was a requirement. However, once certified, I felt more knowledgeable. I expanded my skillset, and I was more confident. Being certified made me a better tech for my providers and my patients.”

For Martinez, achieving his CPOT was a great accomplishment as well, with a few challenges along the way. “I put in many hours of studying for the CPOT. Learning and comprehending the material wasn’t easy for me. I found it quite challenging, but once I received my results it was a great feeling.”

During Paraoptometric Appreciation Month, join the AOA in celebrating all that paraoptometric professionals do every day to support the eye and vision health of our civilians and military, and use the hashtag #AOAParaMonth to stay connected on social media.



Celebrate Paraoptometric Appreciation Month

Visit the Paraoptometric Appreciation Month page to learn how you can enroll paraoptometric staff as AOA associate members.
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