ONE-TO-ONE: SAMUEL D. PIERCE, OD

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Samuel D. Pierce, OD, was sworn in as 2018-2019 president of the American Optometric Association at Optometry’s Meeting in June. Pierce was first elected to the AOA’s board of trustees in June 2009 and has volunteered his time to the AOA’s Communications Advisory Group and several AOA committees. He has been in private practice in Trussville, AL, for more than 29 years and is past president of the Alabama Optometric Association.

Jeffrey Eisenberg: Congratulations on being installed as the 2018-2019 president of the American Optometric Association. What experiences from your 29 years in practice will guide you in your position?

Samuel D. Pierce, OD: My years of experience as a doctor as well as my long-time and active involvement in the Alabama Optometric Association and American Optometric Association have truly set my vision for this dynamic profession. And that is exactly what it is—dynamic and ever-changing. Twenty-nine years ago, I couldn’t perform corneal foreign-body removal or lacrimal dilation and punctal plugs. The ever-vigilant work of the AOA, state associations and volunteers have enabled us to move the needle in so many states, giving us the authority to practice the skills we learn and train for.

Without the AOA and our state affiliates, optometry does not exist. It’s that simple, yet far too many doctors of optometry don’t realize that truth and choose to be on the outside looking in rather than be active members engaged in the profession and having a part in moving optometry forward. Regardless of the mode of practice, whether federal service, corporate practice, large group practice or single-doctor practice, the AOA and our state associations need all doctors to join in and advocate for our profession and for change.

It is because of my hands-on experience in changing the profession that I am focused on it continuing to evolve to better serve patients. Serving as a volunteer and on the AOA’s board of trustees for nearly a decade has prepared me well for this role. I’ve had the privilege of being on the board with 10 different presidents, which means 10 different styles of leadership. In that time, I have learned many valuable lessons from each one. Representing more than 44,000 members of the optometric community is a tremendous responsibility that I do not take lightly. My personal goal is to lead with humility and respect, but I also can be strong and decisive when the need arises. I look forward to helping lead the organization and the optometry profession into the future.

JE: The AOA has been active on several fronts: combating illegal contact lens sales and online eye exams, legislation concerning contact lenses and access to optometric services, state scope-of-practice laws, the opioid epidemic … the list goes on. What are your top priorities for the coming year?

SP: The AOA’s number one priority has been and will continue to be advocating for optometry and what is right for patients. To do this, we must take assertive steps to expand the scope of optometric practice across states. The AOA is deploying an advocacy team comprised of several AOA leaders and staff who will work with individual state optometric associations to assess their current scope of practice and the steps they need to take to expand it. This group will evaluate the state associations’ grassroots structure, PAC donations and relationships with key decision-makers, such as governors, lieutenant governors and key legislative committee members, to provide them with the tools and support to take on scope-of-practice expansion.

While we look forward, we are at the precipice of a once-for-all-time opportunity for our profession, our practices and our patients and for the health and vision of our country: 2020, which is optometry’s moment to break through with our important messages about the value of optometry and the unique benefits of in-person eye exams. Leading into 2020, the AOA is rolling out an initiative to mobilize the profession in examining emerging issues, creating opportunities for discussion and, most importantly, determining the actions we need to take to address the future needs of the profession.

The AOA is engaging optometric leaders and visionaries, fellow health professionals, and policy makers in developing forward-looking optometric actions plans. Through these efforts, we will set a road map grounded in our strategic plan to lead the country in addressing the eye health and vision-care issues Americans face daily.

JE: With proposed changes to the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act, optometrists would have greater recordkeeping requirements. In the meantime, there have been articles/opinion pieces in the media implying that optometrists are mostly concerned with keeping the business for themselves. How do you plan to address this perception, and what specific changes, if any, would you like to see to the Contact Lens Act?

SP: We’ve pressed for and gotten major publications such as USA Today and the Chicago Tribune to retract and clarify inaccurate coverage and continued to ensure that optometry’s patient health and safety message is heard by journalists, policymakers and, of course, the public. Thanks to AOA’s 24/7/365 approach to advocating for our doctors and patients, optometry is more recognized and respected as an authority on healthcare and the doctor-patient relationship – and more widely quoted nationally.

As far as the Federal Trade Commission’s proposed rule goes, this proposal will only serve to divert from patient care and put a wedge in the doctor-patient relationship. In fact, according to an AOA survey of contact lens wearers, more than eight in 10 oppose additional government regulation of the doctor-patient relationship.

We will continue to urge officials to oppose the harmful FTC proposal that would undermine the doctor-patient relationship and impose needless, burdensome requirements on physicians, who are already struggling to keep pace with ever-changing regulatory requirements. It currently costs optometrists approximately $47 million annually to comply with the Contact Lens Rule, and the new requirement would cause an additional cost burden. Doctors are following the law and want government agencies to take action against the real problem at hand: those online retailers who have been found to be lowering quality care standards for medical devices, using deceptive sales tactics and placing patient safety at risk.

What we truly need are more long-term, patient health-focused solutions and to reduce the administrative burden on doctors of optometry so that we can get back to our main priority: taking care of patients.

JE: What are your concerns about healthcare, especially since the future of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, seems uncertain?

SP: We are concerned with vision and health plan abuses that are distorting the market and impinging on doctors’ and patients’ ability to make decisions based on the healthcare needs of patients. Right now, there is an eye health vacancy in America that optometry is willing and able to fill. In fact, eye diseases, vision loss, and eye disorders cost the U.S. economy $139 billion annually as millions of Americans suffer from untreated or undiagnosed vision impairments.

The AOA has set out to ensure patient eye health and safety are at the center of the nation’s healthcare agenda. We want policymakers and the public to fully recognize optometry’s essential and expanding role in the healthcare system and support policies that will safeguard patient choice, strengthen the doctor-patient relationship, outlaw anti-competitive abuses by health plans, and prioritize the delivery of lifesaving and sight-saving frontline eye healthcare.

JE: At Optometry’s Meeting, the House of Delegates passed a resolution calling for the AOA to bolster optometric education. What specific steps are necessary to accomplish this?

SP: Consistent with letters issued to the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE) by AOA’s Board of Trustees, AOA affirms its support for fair, verifiable application of accreditation standards, including those of new programs, and for making full use of all information available relevant to student outcomes. Additionally, AOA affirms its full recognition and endorsement of the complete independence of the ACOE in establishing, maintaining and enforcing accreditation standards for education. Furthermore, AOA calls on optometric stakeholders to strengthen the optometric education enterprise to protect optometry’s future.

JE: Are there any additional areas you would like the AOA to address during your term?

SP: We will see a great deal of activity across the country as a large number of states take a hard look at their current optometry acts and evaluate what needs to be done to raise the bar for optometry. I believe that we will see more and more health plans integrating comprehensive eye exams into their medical plans. We will continue to push state and federal agencies to enforce patient protection laws.

The successful future of the profession doesn’t lie in the practices of the past but in the ability to embrace new technologies that are evidence-based and maintain or even elevate the standard of care for our patients. Eyecare must be embedded in healthcare; it can no longer be segmented out.

With a record number of optometry-backed bills at the state and federal levels facing stronger-than-ever opposition and waves of attacks against us and how we practice coming from an array of special interests, it’s more important than ever for doctors to maintain their membership in the AOA of the AOA and their state associations. All doctors need to join in the fight and help us communicate directly with the public, our medical colleagues, the media and policymakers. And for those who aren’t members, I personally urge you to re-join our community, which is dedicated to standing up for optometry and making a difference for our patients, our practices and our profession.

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