Level up your optometric surgical team: AOA launches surgical assistant coursework

September 27, 2023
The AOA’s new micro-credential program for optometric surgical assisting delivers big with a thoughtfully designed course that equips your clinic staff with specialized knowledge and skills.
Paraoptometrics attend the first-ever AOA Paraoptometric Micro-Credential

(Left to Right) Komal Patel, O.D.; Carol Lovell, CPOT, CPOC; Kimberly Pickle, CPOA; Rich Castillo, O.D., D.O.; Alyssa Manchester; Heather Schwartz, CPOT; Nathan Castillo, O.D.; and Barbara Wohlk, CPOT; attend the first-ever AOA Paraoptometric Micro-Credential: Optometric Surgical Assisting workshop during Optometry's Meeting in Washington, D.C., in June 2023.

Practices can keep pace with optometry’s rapidly advancing scope of practice through a comprehensive micro-credential program designed to equip paraoptometric staff with specialized skills and knowledge for optometric surgical assisting.

The AOA Paraoptometric Micro-Credential: Optometric Surgical Assisting program is an accelerated, competency-based educational qualification that delivers to staff a foundational understanding of surgical assisting techniques, patient care and surgical office management as routine, optometric surgical procedures continue expanding across the nation. In fact, over 10 states currently authorize optometrists to provide certain in-office laser procedures, while others authorize the treatment of common lesions around the ocular adnexa. The surgical assisting program provides not only the essential training to support and facilitate the delivery of these services, but also an external validation of the paraoptometric’s assisting skills.

“The training of paraoptometric surgical assistants is crucial for the safety and well-being of patients, the efficiency of surgical procedures and the overall effectiveness of the practice,” says Rich Castillo, O.D., D.O., course instructor. “It ensures that they can perform their duties competently, adhere to professional standards and adapt to the demands of the patient encounter.”

Taught by experienced professionals and experts in the field, the paraoptometric surgical assisting micro-credential includes both a 6.5-hour lecture and theory course, available on-demand within the AOA EyeLearn Professional Development Hub, as well as a 4-hour, hands-on workshop offered at upcoming events, such as Optometry’s Meeting® or affiliate meetings. At the conclusion of both the didactic and workshop courses, paraoptometrics must demonstrate a mastery of the essential clinical skills by passing 14 lab exercises and a 100-question exam to receive the micro-credential.

⏩ Read how this doctor, paraoptometric team found value in the micro-credential.

10 reasons why the paraoptometric surgical assisting micro-credential is essential

The comprehensive education and training is essential learning for paraoptometrics assisting in optometric surgical procedures for a variety of reasons, Dr. Castillo lists, including:

  1. Patient Safety. The primary concern in any procedure is the well-being of the patient, Dr. Castillo says. Trained paraoptometrics help ensure that procedures are conducted with the highest level of precision and care. Proper training ensures they can assist the optometric surgeon effectively, reducing the risk of errors and complications during office surgery.
  2. Efficiency. Trained paraoptometrics perform duties efficiently, streamlining the procedure and thereby reducing costs and maximizing positive outcomes.
  3. Infection Control. Paraoptometrics are responsible for maintaining a sterile field during surgery. Proper training includes infection control protocols, Dr. Castillo says, crucial for preventing surgical site infections.
  4. Communication. Paraoptometrics need to be able to communicate clearly with the optometric surgeon. Training helps develop the necessary communication skills to relay critical information accurately and in a timely manner.
  5. Instrument Handling and Knowledge. Paraoptometrics must be proficient in identifying and handling surgical instruments and equipment, Dr. Castillo notes. Training ensures they can anticipate, select and pass instruments to the optometric surgeon appropriately and understand their functions and uses.
  6. Adaptability. Optometric surgical procedures vary widely in complexity and type, so training equips paraoptometrics with the ability to adapt to these procedures and techniques.
  7. Legal and Ethical Considerations. Paraoptometrics need to be aware of legal and ethical standards in health care, such as patient confidentiality, informed consent and professional conduct.
  8. Teamwork. Optometric surgery is a team effort and paraoptometrics need to work cohesively with the optometric surgeon, Dr. Castillo stresses, something that necessitates training and practice.
  9. Continuous Learning. Optometric surgical procedures and techniques evolve over time, so ongoing training is necessary for paraoptometrics to develop their skills and stay up on the latest advancements.
  10. Certification and Credentialing. Without proper training, paraoptometric surgical assistants may not meet the necessary qualifications for employment or credentialing in the optometric surgical practice, Dr. Castillo notes.

🎧 Audio Extra: Listen to Dr. Castillo describe the importance of the micro-credential.

Successful completion of the surgical assisting micro-credential not only earns paraoptometrics recognition for their dedication and commitment to professional growth but also imparts tangible value and experience to optometric practices. Released in conjunction with AOA Paraoptometric Appreciation Month, the surgical assisting micro-credential is another way for paraoptometrics to distinguish themselves and a way for practices to double-down on their most valuable resource: their staff.

In fact, a 2023 AOA survey found that 93% of doctors of optometry say that certified and well-trained staff add value to their practice through increased knowledge, while another 81% say they add value through improved patient care.

But most significantly of all, these doctors say they recapture an average of 11 hours per week by having certified or well-trained paraoptometric staff who can relieve doctors of tasks that are not required to be directly performed by physicians. Moreover, this helps doctors see nearly 12 additional patients per week by delegating nonphysician tasks.

Learn more about AOA associate membership for paraoptometrics and how the educational resources that come along with membership—at no additional cost to AOA member doctors—can open the door to certification.

‘Our office is benefiting’ from staff earning the surgical assisting micro-credential

Efficiency may be the end result, but confidence is the real takeaway for Heather Schwartz, CPOT, the first paraoptometric technician in the nation to gain the surgical assisting micro-credential. Having completed the inaugural hands-on training at Optometry’s Meeting in Washington, D.C., Schwartz committed her focus to the didactic portion on AOA EyeLearn and earned the credential all so her practice in Gillette, Wyoming, could lean into her skillset as they provide patient care through procedures, such as IPL, YAG and SLT.

“Being from a small town, I feel even more inclined to be up to date on new information so that our patients don’t have to travel two hours away to get quality eye care that could be provided locally,” Schwartz says.

One of two paraoptometric technicians at the practice, Schwartz has directly assisted the dry eye clinic for a couple of years but only began assisting in those minor laser procedures for a few months. Seeing the dramatic and positive results of those procedures, as well as having a central role in delivering that care, proved a motivating factor in Schwartz pursuing the micro-credential.

“I definitely feel more confident and efficient after taking this micro-credential,” Schwartz says.

And Roger Jordan, O.D., practice-owner, agrees. An active encourager of staff certification, Dr. Jordan notes that each time Schwartz progresses to the next level [of paraoptometric certification] he sees her increased confidence and the overall enhancement of the optometric team caring for their patients. Now two years after Wyoming’s scope expansion to include optometric surgical and laser procedures, Dr. Jordan sees Schwartz’s certification and micro-credential as an absolute asset.

“With Heather going through her most recent certification, this only makes the procedures more efficient, e.g., getting the patient prepared, calming the patient and teaming with the doctor,” Dr. Jordan says. “This micro-credential is going to be great for patients and offices as these procedures expand across the country. We are so proud of Heather to be the first in the country to earn this achievement, and our office is benefitting.”

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