How to Grow Your Clinical Skills After Optometry School

Dr. Thomas Aaron Judd, Optometrist.

As you approach graduation, it may seem like the learning part of your optometric career is coming to a close, and the future is putting all that hard work to practice! But when your classical education ends, it’s important to continue to grow your clinical skills and knowledge.  At this point in your career, your goals usually revolve around finding just 2 more hours in the day to study and line up practice opportunities. For most new graduates there is also a daunting fear of student loans coming due.  These are the things that upcoming optometry school graduates obsess over in the months leading up to commencement.  The last thing on your mind at this stage is continuing education.  Being granted a terminal degree is more than just an achievement; doctoral status means personal responsibility.  Your further education and growth is your responsibility now and your learning should never stop.

Every year there are major changes to ophthalmic care and legislative changes that redefine the optometric scope of practice. Even treating the big three (cataract, macular degeneration, & glaucoma) have new advances each year.   New technologies are brought to market to help diagnose disease; new medications are researched and put into daily clinical practice.  New surgical techniques and equipment are created and become commonplace.  As a healthcare provider, staying abreast of these innovations is not just good for your growth, it is essential to provide the best clinical care to your patients.  The major question is, how do we continue to grow when we are not paying for people to teach us?

In school we learn by required reading, listening to lectures, clinical skills labs, clinical shadowing & practicing with supervision.  As a working clinician, it becomes much harder to carve out time to dedicate to self-growth, especially growing your own clinical skills.  When I was at the same place you are now, commonly cited advice was, and likely still is, to join your local optometric association and attend continuing education meetings.   While this is still sage advice, I consider it a basic and bare minimum first step.  An expert clinician it does not maintain.  My principle for expanding knowledge is two-fold:

  1. Read
  2. Surround yourself with people brighter than you are.

Reading seems so elementary and simple.  What lets you grow is what you choose to read.  We have a plethora of literature solely dedicated to eyes with a focus on disease, research, clinical business and eyeglass frames.  I spend some time nearly every day reviewing these periodicals.  A lot of the basic information is repeated in each of them.   This is good because when you see it multiple times, you absorb it.  In the instant information world today so much of the new treatment and diagnosing technologies are available faster and more conveniently online.   When met with a new, or forgotten, condition in a patient, using the internet is imperative and does not make you less of a doctor.  These are my top four clicks:

  1. Clinical Trials
  2. NCBI Pubmed
  3. American Academy of Ophthalmology
  4. Florida Department of State

Surround yourself with the best and brightest.  In my years since graduation, I have been fortunate to spend time with trendsetters in optometric care.   By knowing, talking, and practicing with world-class providers it forces you to stay ahead of the game.  Offer current treatments and refer patients to providers who endorse your abilities by letting your patients know that you are a cutting-edge practitioner.  Be an early adopter.   With some new technologies and medicine, the science has proven to be a little ahead of the clinical application, but in most cases, the advances are better.  Surrounding yourself with forward-thinking, technology savvy people can be challenging depending on where you practice, especially if you practice in a rural area that is free of tertiary referral center optometrists, kind ophthalmologists, or fellowship trained ophthalmologists.   In my years since graduating, co-managing surgical care and creating a referral network with my MD colleagues has been my best tool for clinical growth.  All of us are near these providers and typically when you reach out to them they are encouraging, helpful and ready to assist you and welcome your referrals.  If you find yourself in al setting where collaborating with MDs is more challenging, then maximizing your continuing education meeting experience and seeking out conferences globally can be very beneficial.

Just like anything in life if you are feeling stagnant with your own personal growth, do not be afraid to change the channel, your story or your location.  Setting out into actual practice is a scary and exciting time.  You are well read, well taught and well tested.  You are ready to provide the best eyecare to date.  Never forget that learning and growth never stop.   Read well;  be and surround yourself with the best.  Strive to always move forward and you will undoubtedly never stop growing!


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Originally from Oklahoma, Dr. Judd completed his Bachelor’s Degree with Distinction at the University of Oklahoma. He attended the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tennessee and received his Doctor of Optometry, Summa cum Laude. In optometry school, he was awarded a Health Professions Scholarship from the United States Army. He completed his clinical training at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Pentagon DiLorenzo Tricare Clinic, Blanchfield Army Community Hospital at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After clinical training he was selected to be the eye doctor for the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. While there he served as a clinic chief, residency/internship director and was adjunct faculty for SUNY College of Optometry and then Pennsylvania College of Optometry. Dr. Judd created the JLC Grading Card for new clinicians and has been published in Optometric Education. Dr. Judd also served a one year tour during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was based in the triangle just north of Baghdad. He provided triage, emergent, traumatic and general eye care to the multinational forces, civilians, detainees and insurgency. After military service, he worked for a large multi-specialty ophthalmology practice in South Florida and now is in private practice with a neuro-ophthalmologist.