AOA’s new Center for Independent Practice to amplify members-only resources for practice success

November 23, 2022
AOA leaders mobilize resources for contemporary practice expansion and growth fueled by recent scope and recognition victories.
Center for Independent Practice

With backing from leaders in optometric education, the experience of doctors leading the advancement of eye health and vision care, and a bold plan to offer leading-edge resources to members, the AOA is launching its Center for Independent Practice (CIP). The center will provide new and expanded support for members and students who want to seize opportunities in the constantly evolving health care delivery landscape, and to better understand how the profession’s historic advocacy gains can boost practitioners.

According to AOA President-elect Ronald L. Benner, O.D., the CIP will be a center of excellence to support member doctors and optometry students to successfully navigate rapid health care change.

“Helping our members achieve practice success is the highest priority for the AOA Board of Trustees and this entire organization,” Dr. Benner says. “Just as AOA and state associations succeeded in cutting through the concern, confusion and clutter of the COVID-19 pandemic to deliver accurate information, direct pathways to crisis relief, and barrier-shattering advocacy, our new mobilization—the Center for Independent Practice—will deliver for our doctors and students and ensure that optometry defines its health care destiny.”

The CIP also reflects the AOA Board of Trustees’ strong focus on safeguarding optometry’s hard-won independence even as systemwide change—including abusive plan policies, device de-regulation and commoditization, false product claims and lax oversight—threatens physician autonomy and doctor-patient decision-making.

AOA President Robert C. Layman, O.D., and Secretary-Treasurer Jacquie M. Bowen, O.D., will serve as chair and vice chair, respectively, of the inaugural CIP Steering Committee. Joining them on the committee will be Lewis Reich, O.D., Ph.D., president of the Southern College of Optometry (SCO); Doug Penisten, O.D., Ph.D., dean of Northeastern State University Oklahoma College of Optometry (NSUOCO); and independent practitioners Tara DeRose, O.D., Aaron McNulty, O.D., and Erick Henderson, O.D.

“The center is designed to meet the need for more tools in the quest to practice at the highest level of scope, to connect opportunity providers and seekers in the successful transition of practices, and to help students in the delivery of the contemporary care they have mastered to their communities,” Dr. Layman says. “As AOA fights for the profession, we want our members to be equipped to transform advocacy wins into the clinical care and financial opportunities for independent practice.”

The AOA and state affiliates have long served as the advocacy arm for the profession, while schools and colleges of optometry continue to provide unequalled education in eye health and vision care. As health care delivery and practice evolves, the CIP will be a hub of information for students and doctors about how to enter, grow and expand the independent practice of contemporary optometry.

Housed in the AOA advocacy office, the CIP will connect and promote information and resources to take advantage of opportunities created by AOA advocacy on Capitol Hill in the federal government and with third party payers. As the AOA continues to serve as a powerful voice for optometry’s cherished independence, the organization’s leadership is intent on helping deliver advocacy wins into practice success.

Major advocacy gains that support independent practice include unprecedented state scope modernization across the country, full recognition in federal law and regulation of optometry’s essential and expanding role in health care, implementation of the Harkin nondiscrimination law for third party payers including ERISA plans, children’s eye health and vision care integrated into medical plans, and most recently, removal of restrictions on the range of services independent practitioners may provide for the nation’s veterans in local communities.

The 2022 midterm elections delivered a new political landscape that will continue to shape health care economics and policy. The CIP is uniquely and intentionally positioned to equip doctors of optometry and optometry students/recent graduates with tools and strategies for success, as independent practice survives—and thrives.

Online competition, regulation, staffing shortages, vision plan abuses, provider parity— these are just a few of the challenges doctors of optometry contend with. Even against these headwinds, practitioners of contemporary optometry independently deliver exceptional eye care.

With the launch of its new CIP, the AOA can help doctors who have been running their practices for years to recent graduates of optometry schools and optometry students succeed in an ever-evolving health care landscape. The CIP will enable independent practices to optimize practice resources, develop strong partnerships, illumine financial planning and utilize the fundamentals of professional practice advocacy.

“The camaraderie of AOA doctors is a powerful resource, and we want to build each other up to contribute to the success of our practices and our profession,” Dr. DeRose says.

What: CIP mission

The CIP’s mission is to create a foundational knowledge base for independent practice in contemporary optometry. A one-stop repository or hub of resources on aoa.org has been rolled out and a symposium on independent practice is being planned for Optometry’s Meeting® in June 2023.

“The mission of the AOA Center for Independent Practice is to fuel a passion for and create a foundational knowledge base to excel in the management of today’s independent practice of contemporary optometry, no matter what the setting,” Dr. Layman says.

Who: Foundational partners

Dr. Layman invited key academic leaders to help guide the CIP. SCO and NSUOCO immediately joined the initiative, and other schools may sign on. The CIP will serve all students, but CIP programming may connect with foundational partners first.

For years, SCO has operated its Hayes Center for Practice Excellence. Its mission is “to teach independent optometrists the fundamentals of practice.”

Says Dr. Reich of SCO: “We are proud to partner with the AOA on the Center for Independent Practice. …. We look forward to working with the AOA in providing students with a strong education in practice management to prepare them for success in meeting the challenges and embracing the opportunities available in the independent practice of optometry.”

NSUOCO was founded on the principle of educating and preparing its graduates for independent practice, and it has remained true to that principle. The optometry school provides a practice development and administration curriculum that emphasizes the many practice and lifestyle benefits for independent doctors. Its practice development and administration program is supplemented by seminars by independent doctors who provide students with "real-world" advice for success.

"The NSU Oklahoma College of Optometry supports the Center for Independent Practice because independent practice provides our graduates with the best environment for giving patients the best choices in making their vision care decisions," Dr. Penisten says.

The AOA’s president had special praise for those visionary educational institutions that committed to participate in the CIP and to have 100% faculty membership in the AOA. SCO and NSUOCO also have the highest rate of AOA membership among students who graduated from 2011-2021 and the highest rates of faculty membership in the AOA among all schools and colleges of optometry.

“Faculty members are very influential as mentors and role models of professionalism and clinical expertise in the student training journey,” Dr. Layman says. “The development of specific resources for them, such as how to maximize assistants for the delivery of medical eye care, advanced contact lens services, or vision rehabilitation, may serve as a success playbook for students.”

Rodney Peele, J.D., will serve as the CIP’s executive director.

Doctors of optometry also are sharing the benefits of their practice experience.

Drawing on doctors’ experience

Aaron McNulty, O.D., practices in Louisville, Kentucky, and owns Louisville Eye Center. He started independent practice as an associate in 2012 after finishing a residency program. After four years, he purchased the practice.

As a member of the CIP Steering Committee, Dr. McNulty says he is looking forward to helping support doctors in practice management.

“Independent practice can also be extremely rewarding for the practitioner. It is vital that the next generation of optometrists recognizes that independent practice has a bright future, and they have the tools and resources to support this professional avenue,” Dr. McNulty says.

Dr. DeRose is co-owner of Mountain Vista Eyecare and Dry Eye Center in Littleton, Colorado. She, too, expresses a passion for independent practice. She has been an independent practitioner her entire career.

The committee’s work can help impact doctors positively, she says.

“With the ability to make decisions, doctors can have a direct impact on the quality of comprehensive care we provide to our patients,” Dr. DeRose says. “The AOA continues to advocate for doctors of optometry. Independent practice allows doctors of optometry the freedom and flexibility to practice to the highest level of our training.”

Dr. Henderson, an associate doctor of optometry at McCauley Celin Eyecare in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and fellow committee member, says he’s eager to support doctors in independent practice.

“I'm excited to help guide and support other doctors of optometry in their journey into independent practice,” Dr. Henderson says. “Oftentimes, the resources that will be available from the CIP are hard to find, and it takes a lot of time, and some people may become discouraged. With the CIP creating a place for all this information and expertise, it will help anyone looking to advance their knowledge and make the transition into independent practice.

“CIP will offer members freedom to be an individual,” he adds. “Having the ability to practice independently gives a doctor of optometry the ability to do what is best for the patient, without outside influences guiding his or her decision-making.”

How: Access resources

The CIP seeks to inform students and new graduates about tools and resources that come with AOA membership. The CIP webpage on aoa.org will also offer resources to help experienced practitioners succeed.

The CIP has already highlighted current educational resources in the AOA’s EyeLearn Professional Development Hub as well as continuing education opportunities at Optometry’s Meeting next year. Key benefits of AOAExcel® also are part of the CIP focus. CIP networking and mentoring initiatives will help connect less experienced doctors with successful, established independent practitioners.

And more resources are on the way. The CIP will work with optometry’s educators and other experts to develop educational information and programs for doctors of optometry and students.

“Contemporary optometry may not be delivered in every practice setting due to a variety of reasons,” Dr. Layman says. “We think an emphasis on removing barriers and empowering students/young doctors of optometry to practice all the skills they have learned will elevate optometry’s role in national health care.”

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