Article Date: 12/1/2006

women o.d.s
Do Women O.D.s Practice Differently Than Men

A roundtable discusses the changing dynamics in optometry.

BY DWIGHT H. AKERMAN, O.D., F.A.A.O.

Today, about two-thirds of practicing optometrists are men. But with more women than men graduating from optometry schools, those numbers are changing dramatically. Indeed, women already account for a slight majority of O.D.s under age 35.  

Are the motivations and aspirations of these young women O.D.s distinct from those of their older colleagues? Do women O.D.s spend more time with patients and more time overall in patient care, versus practice management, than their male colleagues? As a result, do they write more prescriptions for contact lenses?

Those were just a few of questions addressed earlier this year by a panel of women O.D.s (see photo and caption on page 59) convened by CIBA Vision to gain a better understanding of where the profession is headed and how it can stay in tune with those changes. Five of these O.D.s own a private practice, two of them co-own the practice with their O.D. husbands. One is an academic; one is employed in an ophthalmology practice and two have corporate affiliations.

The private-practice O.D.s were each at one time employed. Few appeared to have developed a plan early in her career to establish a private practice, but each expressed pride in having overcome obstacles to succeed in her own business and in being trailblazers for other women.

Members of the CIBA Vision roundtable included (left to right): Drs. Glenda Secor, Marlene Reiss, Pamela Lowe, Loretta Szczotka-Flynn, Karen Rosen, Leslie Gallagher, Ellie Hattori, Mary Jo Stiegemeier, Ann Madden, Gwen Gnadt and Cynthia Green.

Creating a practice

In creating their own practices, several of these women said that gender bias extends beyond their male colleagues. They perceived a bias by accountants, bankers and lawyers, as well as other business owners in the community. For many young women, that could contribute to the intimidation they already feel in starting a practice.

Once established, however, these women O.D.s feel that the challenges they face as business owners are not unique from those faced by their male counterparts. While private practice remains the ideal career setting for both men and women O.D.s, the primary motivation of most new graduates is to find a job to begin repaying the debt they accumulated in optometry school. Accordingly, corporate-affiliated positions, with their typically higher salary, are attractive.

While many O.D.s enter into corporate optometry thinking it will be a temporary arrangement, many find it a comfortable career choice, free of ownership and management responsibility.

In each mode of practice, the panelists learned valuable lessons, which are summarized in the remainder of this article.

Go Beyond the Boss

Women O.D.s are more inclined to practice as part of a group as opposed to solo practice. In part, this preference is driven by the value women O.D.s place on flexible work schedules. So whether they select corporate-affiliated practices, employment in other practices or partnerships with other O.D.s, it seems likely that more O.D.s will be practicing together. In those practices, it would be a mistake for sales representatives to limit their communications to the managing O.D. or practice owner. Instead, the women on the panel feel it would be beneficial for sales representatives to brief all O.D.s on new products, technology and services.

Dr. Stiegemeier said she often lacks the time to pass on the information supplied by the sales reps to her team. As a result, she said, the practice does not embrace new products as fast as it might otherwise do. The more associates or part-time O.D.s there are in a practice, the more important it becomes for sales representatives to spend time with all the O.D.s and the staff, to ensure a uniform message is delivered.

Be Better Consultants

It's Your Business

CIBA Vision has launched "It's Your Business," a column on the Web site of Women in Vision (www.wovonline.org). The column is written by Sally M. Dillehay, O.D., Ed.D., F.A.A.O., director, medical marketing and clinical claims for CIBA Vision. The column summarizes practice-building ideas developed by the faculty of the Management & Business Academy, a professional education program co-sponsored by CIBA Vision and Essilor of America.

Both men and women graduates are unprepared for the business management aspects of optometric practice. Newly graduated men and women O.D.s have a different work ethic than did prior generations of graduating O.D.s – in terms of expecting greater scheduling flexibility, family/work balance and, typically, more money. Women are more likely than men to be faced with the conflicting demands of the needs of their family versus their career.

Because of this added pressure, many established women O.D.s seek the opportunity to mentor or otherwise assist younger women coming into the profession. Industry representatives, who typically meet with a large number of practices and see first-hand the best practice strategies in use, can help with these important networking introductions, or simply share their knowledge to help younger O.D.s grow their practices.

Emphasize Lifestyle

Women O.D.s, on average, are more likely to be empathetic to patient needs and to demonstrate concern for the patient's welfare than are men, the panelists said. They are more conscientious and thorough in evaluating patients' needs. Men are more likely to be interested in the financial aspects of patient management. Several panelists related personal experiences of patients telling them that they preferred having a woman O.D., because they were better listeners and communicators.

While there are no data to suggest that female O.D.s are more likely than male O.D.s to recommend contact lenses to patients, there is a sense that women are more likely to discuss a patient's lifestyle. That may result in more multiple-product sales or therapeutic prescriptions. Women are also more comfortable than men in discussing the cosmetic benefits of contact lenses with female patients.

Today's younger O.D.s, both male and female, were thought to lack sufficient training in contact lens fitting, particularly GP lenses.

Energize the Organizations

Women on the panel agreed that there is a general perception that professional organizations are controlled by a "good old boy" network, even as dozens of women in recent years have taken on state association leadership roles. One reason might be the intense level of commitment required to reach leadership status. For many women, this coincides with the demands of raising a family. Another issue is that graduating students were said to see little benefit in participation in organized optometry, because the battles that optometrists once needed to fight to gain professional stature have already been won.

As more women rise through local, state and national leadership ranks, the professional organizations might appear more relevant and accessible to women and younger O.D.s.

The panelists encouraged development of programs to educate women by addressing areas such as practice management skills and the art of negotiation and staff management.

Dr. Akerman is director, professional programs, CIBA Vision North America, Duluth, GA.



Optometric Management, Issue: December 2006