Article Date: 2/1/2006

business advisor
Defining Professionalism
Is it your mode of practice or how you treat your patients?

I would like to start this column with a question. What makes an optometrist 'professional' in the 21st century? Is it based on how much O.D.s advertise their services, the type of practice or how they treat their patients?

Back when ...

When I was a young O.D. in the early 1970s, the men of optometry (women were a rarity) tended to practice in two general settings: independent private practice or chain settings such as Pearle Vision.

In those days professionalism was pretty cut and dried. If you owned a practice and didn't promote your services in the newspaper, radio or television — Congratulations, you were considered a professional. For the most part, it didn't matter if you had a dumpy office or a low standard of care. As long as you didn't discount and/or advertise, your colleagues would still hold you in high esteem.

However, if you were rebellious enough to discount fees, run ads or, worse, work for an optical chain, you were labeled as "commercial" and often not welcome in your state association or the AOA. For those who graduated from optometry school in the last ten years, it's difficult to overstate how strongly many in organized optometry felt about O.D.s who advertised.

A changing landscape

But the world has changed dramatically. Lawyers, dentists, urologists, plastic surgeons and particularly ophthalmologists now spend far more on advertising than optometrists. Our modes of practice have also evolved. Self-employed O.D.s can make a very good living today without selling eyewear — as long as they practice next door to what would have been considered a commercial optical store in the 70s. The very idea that an optometrist could practice in a corporate setting and still provide the highest standard of care would be very confusing to the professional watchdogs of my day.

Given these changes, how do we define professionalism in this day of hybrid practice locations? It's clear to me that professionalism in optometry can no longer be judged by location or mode of practice. In my opinion, a "professional" optometrist is one who always puts the best interests of the patients above his or her own financial gain.

The best of both

In other words, I think your level of professionalism is really determined by the decisions you make in that little dark room when it's just you and the patient. If you take shortcuts or knowingly fail to provide your patients with the best care possible, you're not acting like a professional even if you've never advertised a day in your life. And while you shouldn't recommend eyewear that people don't need just to increase your own income, a true professional will tell patients about all the options available to treat a particular vision condition, even those that cost more. Do those things, and you will be a professional of the highest order in my book, regardless of where you practice.

Now I want to hear what you think (see questions in the box above). Send your answers to my editor at and be sure to include your year of graduation from optometry school.


Optometric Management, Issue: February 2006