Changing of the guard
Excerpted from the June 2020 edition of AOA Focus.
Unparalleled times call for an unparalleled response as the COVID-19 pandemic, a critical public health emergency, has prompted the AOA to take drastic measures to protect members and the profession. Now, for only the second time in the association's history, have the AOA Congress and annual meeting been affected by world events. However, with the benefit of 21st-century technology, the AOA will convene a virtual meeting where board leadership will change command.
In a Q&A with AOA Focus, current AOA President Barbara L. Horn, O.D., and incoming President William T. Reynolds, O.D., discuss triumphs and challenges and the way ahead for optometry in these extraordinary times.
The coronavirus pandemic exposed a lot of challenges in America's health care system, but what do you see as challenges specific to optometry throughout this crisis?
Dr. Horn: One of the paramount issues that we recognized, and acted upon quickly, was to ensure full recognition of doctors of optometry and our physician role in the federal COVID-19 crisis response, as well as at the state and local level. From there, we have worked every day to stay on top of the disruption this disease is causing to our practices and patient care. We have had to be nimble to dodge the constant curveballs, including a move to focus on urgent and emergent care as well as working to understand and access the myriad federal assistance options. It is also during these crises, though this is certainly an unprecedented one, when you can see societal shifts and trends either accelerate exponentially or stop altogether, and we are seeing that in optometry and health care. Before COVID-19, the demand for convenience and increased use of technology was evident. When people began sheltering in place, telehealth demand opened. While providing urgent and emergent care, doctors of optometry, informed by our #AskAOA webinars on telehealth, have navigated ways to responsibly employ technology while preserving the doctor-patient relationship. As with all progress, we won't be reverting when this is over but using creativity and doctor insight to integrate telehealth into our practices.
Dr. Reynolds: The COVID-19 crisis has exposed significant challenges not only facing our profession and association, but also the whole health care system. This pandemic is something that we've never experienced, and many of these challenges are ones we wouldn't have expected to see so immediately.
The adoption of new technologies, specifically telemedicine, is a critical tool that's keeping doctors in touch with their patients. While telemedicine increases access, we must ensure that quality of care is not diminished. AOA is committed to making sure telemedicine developments prioritize the doctor-patient relationship and high standard of care that we already provide patients.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the AOA was able to make great strides for our profession in 2019-20. What do you see as some of our greatest accomplishments?
Dr. Horn: When we set out to make the most of 2020, we made sure that our effort and our message leveraged the year but also was able to live on into the future. We came into 2020 with a lot of momentum focusing on 2020 as the year of the eye exam. Education is a critical area where we have focused in the past year, and I am proud of the accomplishments and the touchpoints we made.
For the first time ever, rather than individual visits, we as the entire Board of Trustees held our board meetings on optometry campuses, in person and virtually, to engage with our students and faculty in five schools across the country. In addition, AOA and many affiliates were successfully educating the public through public relations and advocacy activities and our employer pledge. Before COVID-19 started picking up traction, we had more than 50 participating organizations that account for nearly 375,000 employees and collectively reach more than 15 million member individuals.
Dr. Reynolds: First I would like to say that I am very proud of how quickly AOA went into action when the COVID-19 public health crisis occurred. We immediately reprioritized our objectives to give membership support and ensure inclusion in relief packages through a 24/7 advocacy effort in Washington, D.C., and across the nation. From the moment Congress began considering the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and subsequent phases of legislation, AOA's advocacy team has been involved every step of the way, ensuring doctors of optometry and optometric students aren't left out of these crucial measures. The same goes for AOA volunteers and staff, completely pivoting to provide our profession with the guidance, information and resources they need to help them get through this crisis. In 2019, a major accomplishment of the AOA was the formation of a new Education Task Force. This education initiative is something that will not only advance doctors' professional development but will also enhance staff knowledge and training and help our educators move forward with an advanced curricula and teach expanded, future-focused procedures.
Although now canceled, Optometry's Meeting® is viewed as a halfway point on the profession's calendar—yet so much has changed in those six months. What do you see for the remainder of 2020 and beyond?
Dr. Horn: We always look ahead to what is next and what more we can do to improve Americans' health. As our states and country begin to reopen, we will use the momentum we created as building blocks to reconnect and advance our collective priorities. I look forward to continuing this work as we take this great profession beyond 2020. In this new normal, we will work to harness the collective power of doctors, professionals and students to move people to take action to protect their eyes and vision by making comprehensive eye exams with doctors of optometry part of their annual health care regimen. And, while we continue to promote that message, we will ensure that affiliates have the resources and capabilities they need to continue the efforts to advance recognition of the important care doctors of optometry deliver.
Dr. Reynolds: So much is uncertain right now, but it's important to know that AOA is there for you, your patients and our profession. The AOA understands your needs, and we're doing everything we can to get you the help and support you need to continue caring for your patients. Optometry has a long history of coming out of crises and moving forward. We will continue working toward equipping our members with the skill sets and tools necessary to be successful in the future practice of optometry.
As 2020 concludes, the AOA’s Board of Trustees reflects on a year of unparalleled challenges and tireless resiliency as 2021 begins with promise.
The Atlanta doctor of optometry and civil rights advocate fought to open doors for Black students interested in the profession, including helping to found the National Optometric Association.
James A. Boucher, O.D., 83, founded his practice in Laramie, Wyoming, and served the community for five decades. Dr. Boucher specialized in cornea and contact lenses practice.