Authors Charles F. Mullen and Lesley L. Walls
Q: What do you, as former president of a private college of optometry, consider the most important issues facing the profession of optometry?
The absence of a current optometric manpower study and a comprehensive assessment of the state of optometric education.
The last optometric manpower study was completed in 1999 by Abt Associates, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The last study of optometric education was in 1993 at the Georgetown Summit. A current optometric manpower study and a comprehensive assessment of the state of optometric education are needed given the expanded scope of optometric practice, proliferation of new schools of optometry, national health care reform, the aging population and uncertain optometric manpower needs.
The high cost of optometric education.
Private optometry colleges’ endowments and sources of revenue other than tuition are not sufficient to support college and clinic operations and increased costs are often passed on to the student in the form of higher tuition, resulting in higher educational debt. This may also apply to public institutions although my experience is largely in private colleges. Currently, the cost of an optometric education is a sound investment, however continuing increases in educational costs measured against the income potential of optometrists will likely diminish the attractiveness of an optometric career in the future. Graduate debt is excessive, over $200,000 at some optometric institutions.
Q: Why are optometric educational institutions so dependent on student tuition to support clinical training when medicine and podiatry receive substantial federal support?
At the Georgetown Conference (1992-1993), a meeting of all constituents of the optometric profession to discuss the optometric curriculum/clinical training programs, it was decided that optometric education would remain a four year curriculum with no requirement for post-graduate training for entry level into the profession. This conclusion meant that increases in the scope of practice for optometry and the resultant demands on the curriculum and clinical training requirements and related costs had to be contained in the four year educational program.
The four year optometry program is unlike medicine which requires post-graduate clinical training for licensure due to the expanded educational requirements for entry level medical practice. Graduates of medical and podiatry programs are not eligible for licensure until satisfactory completion of post-graduate clinical training. Because medicine and podiatry require post-graduate training, these two professions along with post-graduate dentistry are eligible for $9.5 billion annually in Graduate Medical Education (GME) Residency Program funds while optometry programs are not eligible.
Q: What are the contributing factors to the high cost of optometric education?
Clinical education is the most easily identified cause of increased operating costs and the most significant. There are numerous factors contributing to higher clinical training costs:
Unlike the successful medical patient care and clinical teaching approach, optometry’s clinical model is student centered rather than patient centered. A student centered model increases the patient examination cycle, decreases patient satisfaction and limits faculty practice growth.
Since the 1970’s with the introduction of pharmaceuticals and advanced clinic. procedures, optometry has been in a state of transformation. Optometric education has evolved in response to the expanded patient care management and treatment responsibilities of optometric practice, significantly increasing training requirements and related costs.
Clinical education is inherently inefficient when compared with the provision of care in non-teaching sites and patient services revenues are inadequate to cover the deficit of clinic operations. Unlike medicine, dentistry and podiatry, optometry is not eligible for federal funds (GME) to compensate for training inefficiencies and increased training requirements and costs.
When the amount of charity care provided by college optometry clinics and patient services payment sources are taken into consideration, state, foundation, corporate and alumni support are currently also inadequate to fund clinic operating deficits. (The cost of clinical education is not always considered in the clinic operations accounting model.)
Clinical faculty incentives and/or expectations to increase patient services revenues are usually not usually components of employment contracts and maximizing revenue is not considered a priority by faculty members nor rewarded by colleges. Providing efficient patient services is not emphasized. Faculty and staff training in patient services coding and billing procedures is inadequate.
Q: What are your suggestions to reduce the cost of clinical training?
Federal support for optometric clinical training would have a dramatic and lasting impact on the cost of optometric education. Efforts to include optometry in the Graduate Medical Program (GME) and other federal programs, such as the National Health Service Corps should be intensified. However, in order to qualify for the current GME Residency Program significant changes in the clinical education model would be necessary. Post graduate clinical training (residency), as a requirement for licensure, would need to be included in the optometric clinical education model. A Certification Board would be needed as well. Numerous issues involving state licensing boards, national examining boards, accreditation groups, etc would need to be addressed. The Social Security Act amended to include optometry in the Graduate Medical Education Program GME).
Radical new thinking about optometric patient care and clinical teaching is recommended. A major paradigm shift is required where clinical faculty/attending optometrists are in charge of the patient rather than faculty in charge of the care of the student.
Emphasis needs to be placed on patient care during clinical education sessions. Everything that occurs in the exam room should be to the benefit of the patient and patient satisfaction. Great clinical teaching can only occur in the context of great doctoring and role modeling of exceptional care. If this is the norm, then patient cycle time will be decreased and faculty will retool their thinking to be attending optometrists in charge of the patient rather than faculty in charge of the care of the student. This is the successful medical clinical training approach.
The expectations of these attending optometrists are different than academic optometrists. They are expected to drive the performance of the clinical program, both with volume and revenues and their performance evaluations should be strongly linked to their clinical and operational performance. This enables an institution to recruit and retain the best practitioners at market rate salaries with expectations that their income will be paid through their clinical performance resulting in increased revenues from clinical services.
All clinicians should be held accountable to compliance rules and regulations regarding documentation and clinical testing. Regular training sessions should be held pertaining to patient services coding and billing.
Large campus-based clinical facilities are costly and operating costs often passed on to the student in the form of higher tuition. Colleges should consider less expensive affiliations with proximal health care facilities such as community health centers, medical centers, federal facilities and externship placements for clinical training. New colleges of optometry should not build expensive campus based clinics, but rather establish networks of clinical training sites in existing health care facilities.
Q: Are there other causes for the high cost of optometric education?
Yes, there are issues involving the academic program and research. Academic leadership is often slow to react to advances in the clinical practice of optometry and reluctant to make significant changes in the curriculum including addressing course redundancies. Course material remains in the curriculum even though it could be made a pre-optometry requirement and not taught in the core optometric curriculum.
State of the art technology such as distance learning is available, however faculty are reluctant to embrace new teaching methods. More emphasis should be placed on self learning by the student.
The current tenure process at private colleges of optometry greatly restricts the institutions ability to react to changing economic conditions and imposes long term financial obligations. Private colleges of optometry do not reserve funds to meet future obligations imposed by tenure.
Q: What solutions do you propose to reduce the costs of the academic program?
A comprehensive review of the curriculum is suggested, specifically to remove redundancies and course material that could be changed to a pre-optometry requirements, more fully utilize current technology and consider distance learning for selected courses. A national faculty of recognized scholars could provide much of the classroom component of the curriculum via distant learning technology.
When the curriculum is completed, regardless of length, post-graduate training would be required. The post-graduate requirement would therefore make optometric education an exact parallel with podiatry and medicine and position optometry to qualify for Federal support (GME).
Private colleges of optometry should review the long term financial liability that tenure imposes, offer alternatives to tenure such as contract tenure or discontinue tenure. Colleges should calculate the long term financial obligation of tenure already granted and apprise the governing board of the magnitude of that commitment. Consideration should be given to reserving funds to cover tenured faculty.
Q: Why do you believe research at private institutions may be contributing to the cost of optometric education?
Meaningful research programs are costly to develop and maintain. External funding is highly competitive and failure to secure new and ongoing funding may lead to absorbing the costs of research personnel and related expenses in the operating budget. Since the budget is largely funded by student tuition, in the absence of external research funds, increases in student tuition would likely be needed or funds would need to be diverted from the core educational program to support research.
Q: What measures should private colleges take to prevent research programs being funded by student tuition should external funding not be available.
Caution should be exercised in investing in expensive research infrastructure as a return on investment can not be assured.
Translational scholarship such as publications, book chapters, presentations and posters at the AAO, leadership positions in the profession, appointments to NBEO and ACOE Boards, community service could replace traditional research as an expectation of faculty.
It should be clear when appointing faculty who are primarily researchers, that he/she must support all research activities and research personnel with external funding. If funding is lost, continued employment can not be guaranteed.
Caution should also be exercised in granting traditional tenure to research faculty.
Q: Are there other matters you would like to discuss?
Even if all the above recommendations were implemented, revenue would still not be sufficient to support quality optometric education without regular increases in student tuition resulting in higher student debt. It is essential that alumni support their alma maters. Financial support from alumni is far from its potential and is critical to sustaining the quality of optometric education and for attracting the best and brightest students. Both are vital to the prestige and long term success of the profession of optometry.
Strategic alliances among the private colleges of optometry are suggested as a means to reduce costs, stabilize enrollments and strengthen their position in a finite student market. Affiliations with public universities should be considered. Affiliations with medical school departments of ophthalmology provide consultation and surgical services for the college’s clinic patients as well as cost effective clinical teaching encounters for optometry students and residents.
Private colleges should not always count on a robust student applicant pool or increased class size to develop operating budgets. The student applicant pool is cyclical and in combination with increased competition for students from new schools, it could leave the college with unfunded expenses without sufficient tuition revenue.
Colleges should consider reorganizing their clinical program into a separate subsidiary of the college. The advantages of this structure are:
- Provides for a reasonable separation of risk.
- Facilitates the appointment of Board members with skills in health care administration.
- Provides for more focused attention to the respective missions of education and patient care.
- Enhances the ability to solicit funds from foundations and other funding sources which do not contribute to educational institutions.
- Participation in GME would require a separate legal structure as payment are made to the clinical entity and not the college.
Externship sites need strict guidelines and oversight. Consideration should be given to the establishment of a central clearing house for extern placements. Only extern sites that comply with guidelines should be included. Some form of accreditation is needed for individual sites.