When the spread of coronavirus this spring led to stay-at-home directives for much of the U.S. population, little did most people know the impact this would have on optometry students. Yet as part of their clinical curriculum, optometry students are scheduled to see patients in clinics, practices, hospitals, and VA settings to gain first-hand patient experience.

But in the midst of the COVID-19 environment, these student-patient interactions were canceled for safety reasons, which left many students wondering how they would meet the clinical hours and direct patient care required for graduation.

Enter the American Academy of Optometry (AAO), the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO) and Johnson & Johnson Vision Care with an idea to help students get over this hurdle. Their joint effort led to the creation of the Student Online Clinical Case Education Program (SOCCEP) as a way to provide live streamed and/or recorded content for students to continue their education.

While the program was designed to help fourth-year students and residents build on their clinical experience, it is expected to be utilized as a supplemental and continuing education program for others. The organizers said they hope it will also demonstrate to students, residents, and members the commitment of the Academy as a leading contributor to continuing education and professional development.

As J&J Vision recently noted in a blog post, “the COVID-19 pandemic has been trying to say the least, [but] there are silver linings to be found within the optometric community, and one of them is how innovation has accelerated during this time.” As J&J noted, the stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders had a potential impact on academia that went “further than just canceling in-person classes and graduations, as it also posed the risk that students might not meet the clinical requirements needed to graduate.”

J&J Vision joined with AAO and ASCO to set up an online platform and swiftly curate and execute five weeks of information-packed clinical sessions that became the core of the SOCCEP program, which allowed schools to leverage provided content as “supplemental learning, or to lean heavily on the courses as a way for students to continue their education and finish out the year without skipping a beat.” In this way, students could finish out their clinical education requirements.

Looking back on the early response to how COVID-19 was affecting the schools and colleges of optometry, what is especially memorable and uplifting is the reaction of the students who were directly served by this program, J&J Vision also noted.

As Kentucky College of Optometry graduate and new optometrist Dr. Nitya Murthy told J&J Vision, “We thought we’d have to make up credits this summer and wouldn’t be able to graduate on time. A lot of us had jobs lined up after graduation.” She continued, “I was very panicked until the Academy stepped up to provide the program and make it count for our clinical course credits. I just feel very blessed to have graduated on time.” As a result, Dr. Murthy has since started working at the Center for Sight in Carmel, Ind., focusing on dry eye disease and cornea.

To read more about how the SOCCEP helped other graduating ODs, check out the J&J Vision post here.