Article Date: 9/1/2009

For Better, For Worse?

For Better, For Worse?

Thinking about working with your spouse? Two sets of married ODs share their experiences in private practice and academia.

By Erin Murphy, Contributing Editor

When it comes to romantic locales, Venice and Rome have a competitor that may surprise you: Columbus, Ohio. It's named after an Italian, after all. And if you're studying optometry at Ohio State, you might meet that special someone who speaks your language.

Married couples are fairly common in optometry, and if you meet your mate at school and start your professional careers simultaneously, you might think about working side by side. To give you an idea of what it's like for married optometrists who work together, two Ohio State couples share their experiences starting a private practice and working together in an academic setting.

Partners in Private Practice

Nearly 30 years ago at The Ohio State University College of Optometry in Columbus, a prospective optometry student volunteered for a contact lens study, where she met a student assistant working on the study. Today, Susan G. Quinn, OD, FAAO, and Thomas G. Quinn, OD, MS, FAAO, are the founders of their own practice, Quinn, Quinn and Associates in Athens, Ohio (athenseyecare.com). But their union didn't happen quickly.

“We kind of passed each other in the hall, and we were at some of the same parties, but we weren't studying together the way some couples in optometry have done,” Susan explains.

Even after several decades and two children, the couple remembers every detail. “We didn't actually start dating until 3 years after we met,” Tom says. “We went whitewater rafting on a group trip, and Susan rode in my car.”

Tom graduated in 1979, and the pair were married a month before Susan's graduation in 1982. They quickly realized they wanted to open their own practice, so Tom left a full-time teaching position, and they made the second most important commitment two optometrists can make: They became practice partners.

“[Practicing together] works as well as it does because I have as much respect for his abilities and judgment as he has for mine.”

Susan G. Quinn, OD, FAAO

Drs. Thomas and Susan Quinn are married co-partners in private practice at Quinn, Quinn and Associates in Athens, Ohio.

Why It Works

Some couples succeed in practice together, and others may not be so fortunate. According to Susan and Tom, their shared professional values and goals make them ideal partners.

“I think we had to have some kind of essential agreement from the start about our work ethics and how we envision our practice in the community, and those ideals have matured alongside each other over the years,” Tom says. When he and Susan were looking for the perfect location to open a practice, they each made a list of 10 things they wanted in a community. They found their lists were very similar.

Fortunately, while the pair commuted to other jobs for 3 years until the practice became profitable, a common tenacity motivated them. “We're planners. Once we set our minds on something, we approach it methodically,” Susan says. “And from the start, we were just so excited about having our own practice that it really kept us going.”

Mutual respect seems to be another key to the Quinns' longevity as a married couple and practice partners. The couple respectfully defer to one other in conversation, each one often asking the other for an opinion or anecdote about their journey together.

“It works as well as it does because I have as much respect for his abilities and judgment as he has for mine,” Susan explains. “This allows us to regularly consult with each other effortlessly in the practice, and our patients get better care because of this collaboration.”

Pros and Cons

The Quinns readily share the pros and cons of working together as spouses, but the downside people ask them about most often is really no problem at all.

“People always ask, ‘How do you guys spend all your time together?’ ” Tom says. “They think that when a patient comes in, we each take an eye, but in reality, we don't work side by side. Our paths cross at lunch on occasion.”

Another common concern has surfaced, however. “Sometimes, we'd live and breathe the office,” Tom recalls. “We'd talk about work at dinner, and our kids would say, ‘Let's talk about something else.’ They were a wonderful barometer for us. Our children are 23 and 25 now, but we're still mindful about shutting off the work discussion.”

Some of the issues involved with owning a practice together are more concrete and persistent. Susan mentioned a few financial drawbacks. “When you're choosing a practice location, there must be room for two new ODs in the community,” she says. “Another drawback is that you're both self-employed at the same place. Neither spouse has benefits or vacation pay that can help the other. In fact, vacation is a double hit, because revenues go down while you're away. As a result, we've always weighed time away from the office more carefully than people in other situations, although having associates has made a difference.”

Nevertheless, the Quinns agree that vacation pay isn't everything. “Hands down, the advantages of working together far exceed the disadvantages,” Tom says. “When there's an issue, we're both stressed about it, but we empathize and help each other solve the problem. And we always take great satisfaction in the success of the practice we've built together.”

An Academic Match

Spouses aren't limited to working together in private practice. Academic careers can develop side by side as well. Clinicians in academia don't need to start a business from scratch, but they can work closely together in research and clinical settings.

At The Ohio State University College of Optometry in Columbus, Jason J. Nichols, OD, MPH, PhD, FAAO, is an assistant professor and Kelly Nichols, OD, MPH, PhD, is an associate professor. The pair met when Kelly was pursuing her PhD in physiological optics, post-optometry school and Jason was completing his optometry degree and beginning cornea fellowship and PhD work. When they received their degrees, they both secured faculty positions.

The couple's academic duties include classroom and clinic teaching, as well as conducting research studies. They share a research interest in anterior segment care, including contact lenses, tear film, dry eye and other diseases.

“At the university, we have our own research teams of residents and staff that we manage together,” Kelly explains. “We maintain research studies and begin new ones all the time.”

Nevertheless, the Nichols by no means work arm in arm. “It's a complicated environment, and we're both busy doing what we do,” Kelly explains. “Our offices are right next door to each other, but depending on our day, we may see each other a lot or a little.”

Shared Ups and Downs

When spouses work together, they share all of the benefits and drawbacks. Like the Quinns, the Nichols often are questioned about their decision to work so closely together.

“I think Kelly and I try to build off each other's strengths and weaknesses, so we can constructively help each other along. We've learned to make it successful.”

Jason J. Nichols, OD, MPH, PhD, FAAO

Drs. Jason and Kelly Nichols work together in research and as professors at The Ohio State University College of Optometry.

“People hear that our offices are next door, and we drive to work and eat lunch together when we can, and they say, ‘Really?’ ” Kelly says. “But I don't perceive it as a challenge at all — it's quite nice, actually.”

Kelly and Jason also appreciate their insider's ability to understand, celebrate and sometimes share professional successes and recognitions. They enjoy work-related travel together as well, although Jason says it can get complicated. “We go to the same meetings, so for our kids, travel requires a level of planning that may be different from people who work in different professions,” he explains.

The doctors agree that separating work life from home life has never been a problem for them. But they've had to change the perceptions of their colleagues who often assume their work and family life meld together.

“Colleagues and staff know we're married, and that creates certain expectations of which we need to be aware,” Jason says. “Jokes are an occasional issue, but most often people believe that because we're married, we're a single unit. Someone might say to Kelly, ‘Didn't Jason tell you what happened at that meeting?’ Or they might come into my office and ask, ‘Where's Kelly? Why isn't she answering email?’

“We consistently steer people away from the idea that we're tracking each other's movements, or that telling one of us is as good as telling us both,” Jason says. “Eventually, people begin to understand and change their approach to us.”

Advice: Balance Each Other

Another advantage of working with your spouse, rather than going solo, is the ability to balance each other's strengths. By excelling in your own areas, ODs can help each other succeed and achieve an amicable division of work.

“I think Kelly and I try to build off each other's strengths and weaknesses, so we can constructively help each other along. We've learned to make it successful,” Jason says.

“Fortunately, Jason is very organized, and he keeps me organized,” Kelly explains.

“And Kelly has a different sensibility that helps me,” Jason adds. “Like when I write a monthly editorial for Contact Lens Spectrum, Kelly rounds it out and lightens it up for me.”

The couple says their management styles have changed and developed over the years to complement each other and keep up with their growing staff. They feel more productive in these roles today than they did in the beginning.

“We've grown into our careers together, and we've always tried to let each other do the things we do best,” Kelly explains. “New grads should realize they'll need to commit to forging a new road together. They'll benefit from committing to what's important from the start. They should sit down and talk in the beginning and take an honest look at their strengths and passions — managing staff, budgeting, writing and so on — and let their spouses handle the things they can do better.”

Both the Nichols and the Quinns have put much time and thought into what they wanted in their careers and how they'd achieve it right from the beginning, and they suggest new ODs do the same. That's good advice for anyone who's partnering for a new career. Perhaps there's an advantage for married partners who start out already knowing each other so well. But in optomet-ric practice, just like in marriage, honesty and listening skills make all the difference. nOD



Optometric Management, Issue: September 2009