[Edit 8/31/2011: If you came from a search engine, you probably wanted to read my article on How to Become an Optometrist.]
I know there are many young people out there aspiring to become an optometrist. Maybe your sight was bad until one day, like magic, an optometrist outfitted you with glasses and contact lenses and voila’, you saw great. Maybe you think optometrists make a good living and your primary goal is to make a good living with minimal stress and inconvenience to your family life.
Well…kill your romantic notions of what it means to be an optometrist and focus on getting a better job.
First of all, what is the image of an optometrist? Perhaps you think it is overwhelmingly positive. Perhaps all of the optometrists you know have, like a clown, a smile on their face and a funny joke to tell. Trust me, they are crying on the inside.
Speaking of a good joke, have you noticed that every optometrist joke is a bad one. By bad I mean dirty. Trust me, don’t do an internet search for eye doctor jokes unless you like vile, base, worse-than-locker-room jokes. The only two clean optometry jokes aren’t even funny.
Seriously, optometrists have a huge PR problem. When ever we’re mentioned, it’s disparaging. Dave Barry goes to the eye doctor and his devoted fans use the comment section to crack wise. People on the internet view you as worse than used car salesman because you try to convince/sell them on the best (and more expensive) contact lenses and eyewear technologies.
Where is the love for optometrists?! Why can’t people respect their eye health enough to be glad the optometrist wants to dilate their eyes?
Doctor, “Can we dilate your eyes today?”
Most Patients, “No, I’ve got stuff to do today, so I can’t be bothered by with making arrangements once every year (or two or five) to have my eyes dilated. Eye exams should be like haircuts, in-and-out. It’s not like this is healthcare or anything.”
And that’s the problem. People value healthcare, but they don’t recognize that eyecare belongs to healthcare. They’ll pay their primary care physician what it takes to manage their kid’s allergies, but for their kids’ myopia, they’ll go to the big box store instead of the private practice optometric physician. They’ll buy their kid uncoated lenses and a no-name frame which only serves to lower his/her self esteem and get their lunch money robbed.
When I was in undergrad, we had a lecture series for students going into health professions. The doctor told the assembly, “If you want to be a vet that’s fine, but animals don’t pay the bills. People do.”
His point was that when faced with a choice to do an expensive procedure on an animal, they’ll opt for the cheaper option of putting it down; however, humans will pay what it takes to stay alive. The same applies to being an optometrist. Go into a profession where people value your services instead of complaining about the cost. Which is funny because optometry offers the best value for the healthcare dollar (according to Williams Group).
So people value healthcare, but they don’t value eyecare. Which is crazy because eyecare IS part of healthcare. “Vision Insurance” is such a bad thing because it makes people think that their vision is somehow unrelated to their whole body medical care. All eye exams should be under medical insurance, even if their isn’t a “medical diagnosis.” People get routine physicals and check-ups all the time without a specific complaint. Why can’t we do eye exams and be reimbursed by medical insurance without a specific complaint other than making sure our eyes’ health is fine and getting an updated glasses Rx?
I’m sure the dentists don’t mind that they’re not usually under the umbrella of medical insurance coverage. They have nice high fees. People value having a great smile. When the dentist does a filling, does he ask you if you would like the worst, cheapest metal implanted in your teeth? When I went in for a check-up, the dentist handed me a tube of Flouride and said to use this. In my mailed bill, there was a charge of $7. Did I contest it, saying I can’t believe you would charge that amount of money! I could have gotten it on the internet for $5!
So why the grief with eyecare services and products? How come people aren’t willing to pay what it takes for quality eyecare and eyewear?
Probably because there aren’t any big box dentists…yet. But why would the dentist go for the big box. They make good money. Optometrists go to big box because the money is there, right then, cash up front. If I’m new out of school and go to work for another optometrist, I might expect to be paid $50,000. Commercial will offer me $70,000-80,000, or if I own the contract of a busy store, I’ll get $100K+. Why in the world wouldn’t a new grad do commercial? Seriously, the only other alternative worthy of consideration is the Indian Health Service working as a PHS commissioned corps officer. If you do that your entire career, the non-contributory retirement more than makes up for not being paid as high a salary in the early years. The only drawback is living in a remote area, but if you and your family are fine with it, then you’ve got it made. Plus, IHS optometrists get to do real eyecare, not just refractions. If you want to diagnose diabetes and leukemia by looking in people’s eyes, then you want IHS. If you want to wear out your fingers writing prescriptions for eye drops and oral meds, then IHS is for you. If you want a full month of paid vacation, then IHS is for you. The patients actually respect you because they know you take care of their eye problems.
People in the city with an acute eye problem go straight to the OMD. It never even crosses their mind to come see you, the optometrist. Besides, you, an optometrist, are not even on their list of providers to see for medical eyecare because their insurance won’t let you, an optometrist, on their panel.
If the only reason you wanted to be an optometrist is because you want good pay and easy hours, then you are wrong on both counts. Pharmacists get paid just as much, if not more, than most optometrists- and they don’t have to sell stuff. The patients come to them with exactly what they want. Optometrists have had to expand their hours to evenings and weekends. Big box optometrists started it, and private practice copies it to stay competitive.
Do yourself a favor and be a software engineer, pharmacist, or anything else. Optometrists’ lifestyle will only go downhill. You’ll end up working Saturdays and Sundays, and during the week you’ll have to work every day until 7 or 8 PM. The student loans are not worth it. Pharmacists have the same pay without the student loan debt of optometrists. So do salesman. Do something else for your own sanity. You’ll end up poor and bitter. In fact, become an ophthalmic products salesperson. They make as much as the optometrists, and you can sell anything to an optometrist. After all, he/she was duped into becoming an optometrist, so they’ll be easy scores for your over-priced products.