No matter how long you’ve been in practice (or even if you’re still an optometry student) we all remember learning that optometry is a legislated profession. This means that our licensure, our rules and responsibilities, and even our very right to practice are controlled by our individual state governments. Each state has a set of laws, statutes, or codes that define the rights and scope of practice of the optometrists licensed in that state.
This setup might not be much of an issue if the state government were run by optometrists, but that certainly is not the case. In fact, there are only four states that have optometrists as elected officials (as well as one U.S. Senator). State legislators and other government officials come from all kinds of backgrounds – business, law, medicine, military, agriculture, and many other diverse fields. Most of them have very little understanding of what we do every day, and some may have never even had an eye exam. This is why it is crucial for optometry to have a presence in legislative affairs, and why it is so important for each of us to be an advocate for our profession and for our patients.
Advocacy comes in many different forms. Some may appear a little more complex at first, such as building a relationship with your legislator, becoming a political donor, serving on committees for your state and national associations, or even joining the association’s Board of Trustees. Others may seem a little more removed (but no less important), like sending letters to policymakers, being active on social media, or simply maintaining your membership in the AOA and state association.
If those seem a little intimidating, a great first step into advocacy can be as simple as educating your patients about who optometrists are and what services we provide; or talking with them about the importance of an annual eye exam with their Doctor of Optometry. Many of you are likely doing this already, and it is a wonderful opportunity to remind the public of optometry’s vital role in our country’s health care system.
Over the next several months we will explore many of the various ways you can participate in advocacy efforts, whether you are just starting out, or even if you are a seasoned veteran. We will also bring you updates about pressing legislative issues and how you can get involved to make a difference for your profession and for your patients. When combined together, all of our individual efforts can create a tremendous impact on policymakers, regulatory agencies, and the public, and we can truly be changemakers for our profession.
Shane Foster, OD practices at Athens Eye Care in Athens, Ohio. Dr. Foster is a member of the American Optometric Association and serves on the Board of Trustees for the Ohio Optometric Association. He is the current President of the Ohio Optometric Foundation.