Lessons Learned: Private Practice, Industry, Academia

Howard Purcell, O.D.

I may have wanted to be a drummer as a kid, but seeing the joy my father derived from practicing optometry changed all that. My dad worked until four days before he passed away. Optometry was what he loved, and it was impossible not to be influenced by that.

Now in the 34th year of my career, I’ve been in private practice, industry, and I just entered academia for a second time, as the 13th president of my alma mater, New England College of Optometry (NECO).

Here’s a look at some of the lessons I’ve learned:


Starting out in my dad’s practice, it was important for me to look at opportunities that existed and to find something I really liked. For me, it became clear that a niche in pediatric contact lenses was where I wanted to be because it was a need that was not adequately addressed. So, I went out to speak about pediatric contact lenses and passed out my business card to get my name and the practice’s name in front of the public, and I was able to help these patients.

Once I delved into this niche, I learned quickly, through my dad, the value of sales reps and how beneficial relationships with them — and tapping into their knowledge — could be.

Additionally, I learned that employers need to commit to developing their people and empowering them. Moving employees from the employee mindset to more of the ownership mentality changes everything for the better.


One of the differences between private practice and industry is mission. In private practice and as a student, I didn’t feel we had this goal we could wrap our arms around and that everybody could point to. In corporate, I did.

For example, at Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, I was given a mission statement — the credo —written by General Johnson, over 150 years ago, that said when you have a difficult decision to make, here are your priorities. For me, that was one key to learning.

I also learned that to be successful in any large company, you need to be able to convince people to work with you even though they have their own set of interests.

Here, I found myself in environments with all high performers. In these environments, it’s cool to be a hard worker and to give everything you have. The people I worked with took such pride in everything they did. It’s a lesson we can all learn.


As president of NECO, I’m incredibly inspired by the people here and their commitment to the profession and the students. It’s what drives them, and that creates a very different environment. It also means everybody is aiming in the same direction. You’re committed to helping people see what you see and to love the profession the way you do. It’s both different and fulfilling to see the results of your work through others. That single-minded focus is something everyone can learn from in private practice and in business, too. ■

— Howard Purcell, O.D., Boston, as told to Stephanie DeLong, contributing editor.

Research Notes

  • Keratoconus management via Intacs is effective in maintaining corneal clarity longer than contact lens use alone, according to September’s Clinical Ophthalmology. That said, corneal clarity decreases with disease progression in keratoconus cases managed via contact lenses alone.
  • Augmented reality (AR) devices may soon be able to support applications that improve the function of users who have limited vision, reports the September issue of Optometry and Vision Science. In the study, participants with either near-complete vision loss or artificially impaired vision performed certain tasks, such as object recognition, that they could not do without the AR system. However, limitations, including the system’s limited field of vision, will need to be overcome, report the authors.

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