EyeNet Magazine

Practice Perfect: Human Resources
Can U.S. Veterans Help Solve Ophthalmology’s Tech Shortage?
By Denny Smith, Contributing Editor
Interviewing Sunil Gupta, MD, Jane Shuman, COT, COE, OCS, and Kenneth E. Woodworth JR., COMT, COE
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Almost everyone today agrees that qualified ophthalmic technicians are in short supply. “The Academy and JCAHPO have analyzed manpower trends and have concluded that there has been and continues to be an undersupply of techs. In fact, both organizations have developed initiatives independently and cooperatively to address the technician shortage,” said Kenneth E. Woodworth Jr., COMT, COE, chief operations officer for the Kentucky Eye Institute in Lexington.

Ophthalmology’s problem—a shortage of techs. “Patient volume is increasing, but we are not graduating enough ophthalmic technicians to keep up with demand,” said Jane Shuman, COT, COE, OCS, a consultant in practice flow and efficiency and president of Eyetechs, an ophthalmic training company in Boston. The idea of a career path as an ophthalmic tech is one that has been undermarketed, and that is part of the problem, said Ms. Shuman, who also noted that “there are not enough accredited tech programs.”

The problem for returning veterans—a shortage of jobs. As the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, thousands of returning veterans will be looking for work. And they face an economy that has not been embracing anyone, soldier or civilian.

How one practice discovered its solution to the tech shortage. With the right training, this new wave of job seekers can help ophthalmology to address its tech shortage, according to Sunil Gupta, MD, a retina specialist in Pensacola, Fla. Last year, Dr. Gupta’s practice hired—and began training—a young veteran to be an ophthalmic technician. He explained the events leading up to his decision: “A local navy base launched a competition for kids to write an essay on how to assimilate the troops that would be returning. My son Nathan entered his essay and won the contest. I read his essay, of course, and was intrigued by the issue. Sometimes, until something gets brought into the light, you don’t really think about it.”

Nathan’s essay was seconded by serendipity. “About the same time, a technician in the practice knew a son of a friend who had recently come back from Iraq and was working at movie theaters, sweeping floors in a minimum-wage job. This young man, Owen Ranck, had served the country over four years and was kind of down because he thought he would have more job opportunities when he got back. I told my technician, ‘Well, if you know Owen and you’re willing to help train him, then the practice will certainly support this endeavor,’” said Dr. Gupta, adjunct faculty in the ophthalmology department at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.

A rousing success. The practice brought Mr. Ranck on for a 90-day probationary training period, and “he really stepped up,” said Dr. Gupta. “We certainly took a chance on him. He had no health care experience and had never worked in an office setting. But he was motivated, seemed like a great team player, wanted to learn and wanted to be challenged. Very quickly, we saw how well he worked with other members of the team. He absorbed everything, started to do fluorescein angiograms, OCTs and workups. He really came through. The patients genuinely like him.”


What Veterans Have to Offer

Despite hanging up their uniforms, veterans still retain the values that were imbued in them during military service, such as a strong work ethic and a sense of accountability. “I have seen people come out of the military and be terrific candidates,” said Ms. Shuman. “They learn quickly and understand efficiency.”

Teamwork skills. Dr. Gupta noted that veterans are accustomed to working as members of a team. “They’re task oriented. They know how to take orders and take command, and how to work with others.”

Acceptance of procedures. In addition, Dr. Gupta said, veterans understand the importance of following formal procedures and processes. “For example, the submarine program in the Navy has checklists to prevent errors. How great that we might take some of these kids who have been taught these checklists and incorporate them into health care, where we’re trying to reduce medical errors.”

Mental and physical dexterity. “Interestingly, perhaps because he’s a young man and most kids are very comfortable with computers and video games, Owen is phenomenal with manipulating the FA functions, as well as the OCT machine,” said Dr. Gupta.


VETERANS IN PRACTICE. “Every ophthalmology practice I talk to is looking for techs,” said Dr. Gupta, who believes that veterans, like Owen Ranck, can play a key role in solving the profession’s tech shortage. “Our goal is to get Owen certified and move him up the chain. If ophthalmology can do that with a thousand veterans, then we’ve done a huge thing, both for our profession and for these people who have sacrificed on our behalf. Whether you agree with the wars or not, these men and women have done what they were asked to do.”


So You Want to Hire a Veteran?

Tens of thousands of servicemen and servicewomen have returned from Iraq, and more than 30,000 are due to return from Afghanistan over the next year, said Dr. Gupta. “This presents a genuine opportunity for ophthalmology to help veterans transfer from the discipline and rigor of active duty to a career in health care.” While Dr. Gupta’s practice learned about Mr. Ranck’s availability through word of mouth, a new government resource—the Veterans Job Bank—should make it easier to connect with veterans.

A new resource aggregates veteran-friendly job postings. The Veterans Job Bank scours the Web for job vacancies that employers have flagged with a “Veteran Commitment” tag, indicating that they are eager to consider veterans for the position. Job seekers can then search the resulting aggregation of listings by Military Occupation Code (MOC), key word and/or ZIP code, knowing that their search results have been posted by employers who are interested in hiring veterans.

Make sure your vacancy shows up in the Veterans Job Bank. If you are listing a vacancy on your own website, you will need to follow technical instructions for tagging that listing. Next, ensure your site is included in the Veterans Job Bank’s search results by e-mailing your website’s domain name to the National Resource Directory (info@nrd.gov ). Alternatively, you can post your vacancy on one of the job search websites that has already pledged to support employers in this effort.

To learn more, visit the Veterans Job Bank at www.nationalresourcedirectory.
and click on “Instructions for Employer Participation.”

Training your new employee. “It’s very easy for us to get these young men and women up and going, to get them to a position where they have a career track,” said Dr. Gupta. “Techs in our offices do most of the training, not the ophthalmologists. We just provide the financial support.” Ms. Shuman noted that there are advantages to training techs in-house, as Dr. Gupta is doing. “I was trained on the job, as were many of us in the industry. If you have a training plan in place and you hire the right candidate, it’s a win-win for the practice. The new hire learns the skills the way the practice wants them applied—and by investing time and trust in a person, the practice earns loyalty from that new employee.”

“Over a two-year apprenticeship,” said Dr. Gupta, “we would train them and incentivize them based on the certifying tests they passed. Obviously, we would start at a relatively low salary, and then, as they earned each certification step, they would get a raise. We do a lot of clinical trials, too, so we’d also encourage their professional development on that basis because they would be increasing their skill set. An increased skill set reflects positively on the practice and the physician because the tech would be delivering a higher quality of care.”

Check for tax credits. Businesses that hire veterans may be able to benefit from tax credits under new legislation that was passed last November. The “VOW to Hire Heroes Act” provides tax credits of up to $2,400 for hiring veterans who have been unemployed for more than four weeks but less than six months, up to $5,600 for hiring veterans who have been unemployed for at least six months, and up to $9,600 for hiring veterans with service- related disabilities who have been unemployed for at least six months.


Got Tips on Hiring Vets?

If you have any suggestions, post them in the comments section of this article at www.eyenetmagazine.org.


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