Article Date: 8/1/2004

o.d. to o.d.
Supply, Demand and O.D.s
Are too many optometrists practicing in the United States, or are too many optometrists doing too little?
BY WALTER D. WEST, O.D., F.A.A.O., Chief Optometric Editor

Based on the most recent numbers reported by the American Optometric Association (AOA), approximately 40,000 optometrists practice in the United States, or about 17,000 more than market demand currently requires.

To help ease the seemingly overabundance of optometrists, approximately 550 optometrists retire every year -- a number that is projected to increase to 850 each year by 2015. On the other hand, the colleges of optometry graduate some 1,025 new optometrists every year, and I don't expect that that number will reduce any time soon.

How to find balance

So how do we balance the need in the market with the number of optometrists in practice? Although many feel that the only way to eliminate the difference is to reduce the number of optometrists graduating, other options exist. First it's important to recognize that there is always the opportunity to increase demand for optometric services. Indeed, the need for optometrists is projected to be approximately 36,000 by 2005, 39,000 by 2010 and exceeding 41,000 by 2020.

Even with this increase, the supply of optometrists is projected to outpace demand. In fact, by the year 2010 it is projected that there will be an oversupply of some 4,500 optometrists.

Now let's take a look at other statistics from the AOA about how practicing optometrists spend their time. The total number of work hours for a full-time job is 40 each week or 2,080 each year. According to the AOA, the "average" optometrist provides 2,104 complete eye exams in a year along with 963 other patient care encounters for a total of 3,067 total patient encounters each year.

The average number of patient encounters each hour is then 1.47 with the average time spent each patient encounter amounting to 40 minutes or .67 hours. However, respondents to the AOA survey say that they schedule appointments every 30 minutes. At this pace, the number of appointments available in a year (in the "average" O.D. practice) is 4,160.

Behind the numbers

So what does this all mean? It means that the average optometrist's productivity is only about 74% of the potential (3,067 patient encounters divided by 4,160 appointments available). What's even scarier is that this is the "average" optometrist, which means that some optometrists are working at productivity levels of less than 73%.

So is the real issue either reducing the number of new optometry graduates or increasing the number of optometrists who retire earlier? I don't think so. The issue is for the existing practitioners to become more productive.

Of course, the first thing critics will argue is that there's a shortage of patients, there aren't enough to go around. So here's another statistic: 65% to 70% of all initial eyecare encounters occur in optometric practices. You see, we're getting our share of the market. It's not about how many patients you see, it's about the amount of care that you provide to each patient, how well you identify opportunities and how well you provide for patients' needs -- not only in vision-related care but in primary care as well.

Seek the opportunities

We have expanded the scope of our practices but we now need to seek the opportunities to use our abilities. By doing so, all of us become more productive and more profitable individually.

In addition, the increase in individual productivity makes room for more optometrists in the marketplace and allows for growth in our entire profession.

Optometric Management, Issue: August 2004