Lessons Learned as President of the AOA

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Last fall, I arrived home on a Sunday night after being gone for five days. Monday morning I was leaving again for another AOA trip but was following my boys to the car as they were going off to school. I was apologizing for being gone, for not being in touch, for missing out on things, promising this wouldn’t last forever and, quite honestly, feeling guilty. My 12-year-old son, Ian, gave me a hug and said, “Well Mom, you are the president.”

I’ve often been asked what it’s like to be president of the AOA and if it was what I expected it to be, to which I’ve answered “Yes and no, but I’ve learned a lot.” For example, I’ve learned far more about employee pension plans. Specifically, that decisions made in the 1960s can have amazing consequences to an association years later.

I’ve learned far more about how schools and colleges are accredited than I ever thought I’d need to know. I have spent hours asking questions so that I would have a better understanding of what we can and cannot do as it impacts those standards. In the end, I feel comfortable about comments we will give to the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education regarding the standards.

I’ve learned more about the publishing world. I now can skillfully talk about Index Medicus, PubMed, peer review, editors, managing editors and publishing contracts.

I’ve learned that many people really have no idea what the difference is between a screening and an eye exam and that an eye exam is far more valuable. How many times have patients said they had their last eye exam at the Motor Vehicle Department when they renewed their driver’s license?

Because of my involvement with the Foundation for Eye Health Awareness I am now more versed on media buys, market trends and paying for “talent.” I also have a whole new respect for those people who test each and every word that goes into an ad campaign to know which words create more of a reaction with the public.

I’ve learned more about communications. The speed of the internet is amazing, and once you send an e-mail or click “post” it’s out there for the world to see in seconds. Sometimes that can be positive, but other times that can be negative. I’ve tried to respond to each and every e-mail I received, and many times picked up the phone to visit with members. Sometimes I’ve shocked people because I replied. If you didn’t get a response from me it might have been because it got lost in my 200+ e-mails a day. Last time I looked I had 16,000 e-mails in my inbox. And, did you really mean to say that to me? Would you have said that to my face?

I’ve learned that some decisions appear easy on the surface but often have all sorts of tangled webs associated with them depending on what decision is made. There are always two sides to a story, and people who are trying to convince you of something will usually only give you one side of it. I’ve learned that optometrists are people who, like most people, don’t like change. A U.S. Congressman once taught me there is a general tendency for people to believe the big fat scary lies rather than the reassuring truth. And given the opportunity to listen to the truth, a common comment is, “Oh, I had no idea.”

I’ve learned to be more comfortable with public speaking. I’ve grown as a person. I look at things differently. I’d like to think I analyze things better than I did before I was president. I’ve learned I love lobbying for optometry…in D.C. or otherwise.

Most of all, I’ve learned optometry really is a big family. I’ve said that for awhile, and I see others using that now. I think that’s a good thing, because in the end no one else cares about our profession like we do. No one else is going to protect our profession like the AOA will. No one else is going to fight against discrimination of our profession like the AOA will. AOA always has…and always will.

I’ve learned that optometry is different around the world and even inside the U.S. How I practice optometry is vastly different than some of my colleagues in other parts of the country. I understand that and I respect that. But ultimately when we make decisions that are right for the patient, it’s right for our profession.

I’ve learned that even as I get older I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up. And I’ve learned I have an intelligent board of trustees, incredible friends who are supportive, fabulous patients who are proud I’ve been president and a truly awesome family.

Thanks, Ian. I’ll be home soon. 

Dori Carlson, OD is the immediate past president of the American Optometric Association.