Article Date: 12/1/2000

My sons have often said that they look forward to finishing college so they won't have any more homework. My reply is, "In this world where the knowledge base is doubling every couple of years, you're going to be doing homework the rest of your lives."

The optometric profession is no exception in our world, which is exploding with new knowledge and technology. Avenues such as the Internet, continuing education and the optometric press provide us with enormous amounts of data to digest.

Something to consider

This vast amount of information can be overwhelming, but fortunately, we can use different resources to help us better digest it. One of these resources is membership in the American Academy of Optometry (AAO).

This month, I'll explain how becoming a member in this organization can benefit you by expanding your knowledge, by keeping you current on new information and by increasing your base of associates.

I'll show you how by way of my own experience in the journey to "diplomatehood."

Fellowship epiphanies

After becoming a fellow in the AAO, I realized that the level of education provided at the Academy's annual meetings was exceptional. It also became apparent that the four groups, or sections (diplomates), within the Academy had imposed academic demands and standards upon themselves that were much above the norm.

Incidentally, the Primary Care Section has recently been added, bringing the total to five.

The diplomate decision

The reputations and expertise of the diplomates intrigued me, stimulating a desire for me to improve my own level of knowledge. They also served as a conduit for me to keep abreast of the exploding information base in eye care.

These Academy members had spent considerable time expanding their knowledge so that they could pass the testing required to become a diplomate in the Academy. Many of them offered me encouragement and advice about becoming a member.

The different sections within the Academy have a way of fitting the needs and specialization of each practitioner. I elected to work toward becoming a diplomate in the Cornea and Contact Lens Section.

Meeting expectations

As part of the process to becoming a diplomate in the AAO, a few things are expected from you, mainly that you write the case reports and that you pass the tests.

         Case reports. These two words keep many optometric physicians from even attempting to become an Academy fellow, much less getting started toward becoming a diplomate.
It's part of the process and it takes time. I admit that I had the same reservations, but computers have made this process much easier. Here are some other points to keep in mind:

o       I recommend completing one case report and sending it to the section case report chairperson for review. You'll probably receive a reply listing improvements that you need to make in your case report. Don't be offended -- these comments and corrections are meant to help you write the rest of your reports in a format that meets the requirements of the committee. Once you get rolling, it's not that difficult to write 10 case reports.

o       This stage makes you aware of what shape your records are in. I realized that my records were inadequate and that I needed to make changes.
The process also helps you analyze whether your examination procedures, coupled with the case presentation and treatment plan, make sense.
It's surprising how some of the treatment plans aren't quite as pristine as you'd hoped when you revisit the case months down the road.

o       Writing case reports taught me how to better organize and dictate letters to other doctors. These forced writing lessons also improved my knowledge of terms, spelling and grammar.
After I finished my case reports and they were approved, I realized that it was all definitely worth the effort. Not just because of the reward of Section membership, but also because of the improvements in my patient care and documentation.
After you've had one case report approved, you can start taking the tests at the next Academy meeting.

         Testing. With at least one case report under your belt, you're ready for the final stretch � testing, which consists of identifying conditions on slides, passing a written test and examining patients in an evaluation of clinical skills. It's a formidable task, but doable.
Once you've passed these tests and your case reports have all been approved, you're ready for the last hurdle � the oral examination given by two or three diplomates.
By this stage, you're prepared. The diplomates usually ask questions relative to your case reports and to pertinent subjects that are hot topics in current eye care.

Worth the effort

Although I often cursed the entire process, I realized after completing the program that wisdom, rather than madness, was behind the plan. Improved writing skills, planned study time and peer review all culminated to improve my knowledge base.

My partner, Russell Laverty, just completed the diplomate program. He was frustrated at times, and I know he wanted to quit. But he persisted, and is now a diplomate in the Cornea and Contact Lens Section. Russell would now also tell you that it was worth the effort.

Choose your associates wisely

Although I'm probably repeating myself from previous columns, much or most of our success in life depends on who we select as our associates � so choose them wisely.

Being a diplomate allows you to attend and participate in advanced continuing education provided by the section. Also, these optometric physicians are a terrific resource for consultation when you have that tough case and need help.

This added credential opens doors for clinical studies, other research and inclusion in special forums. Contact lens, solution and pharmaceutical companies recognize the advanced certification and education.

These companies need consultants and clinical investigators for opinions and research. Where better to find the talent they need than the diplomates in the Academy sections?

A notable achievement

I consider becoming a diplomate of the AAO to be one of my greatest achievements. I'm sure those of you who are diplomates feel the same way. And if you're not a fellow or a diplomate, perhaps this column served as incentive for you to join the Academy.

The process expanded my knowledge, helped me become a better communicator and served as another avenue for me to stay abreast of new research. And, yes � I still have homework.

Optometric Management, Issue: December 2000