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One to One: Charles P. Wilkinson

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Charles P. Wilkinson, MDWhen I look back, I realize that I didn’t choose ophthalmology as my career path until I was rotating through the service during my third year in medical school at Johns Hopkins. I found that I was attracted to the wide range of activities I could pursue in this subspecialty, as well as by the individual faculty members and their satisfaction regarding ophthalmology.

I was raised in the college town of Norman, Okla., and I returned to Oklahoma City following my vitreoretinal fellowship in Miami at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. What’s interesting is that during this time, very few ophthalmology departments employed full-time faculty members. In fact, that practice didn’t occur until the 1970s were well on course.

Thus, when I returned to Oklahoma City, I technically joined a private retina practice, but these individuals also were the primary faculty members for the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Ophthalmology. Over the next few years, all of us joined additional members as “full-time” in a more formally “academic” situation at the new Dean A. McGee Eye Institute on the campus of the University medical center in Oklahoma City.

I chose a relatively academic career pathway because I enjoyed being associated with academic institutions. I have always found both my peers and my students to be a source of constant inspiration and education. Much more “clinical research” seems to be produced among private practitioners than was the case three decades ago. Thus, the entire definition of “academia” continues to evolve.

In this way, I guess I’ve always been involved in “academia.” It is exceptionally difficult for those of us that see patients with our residents and fellows and also do clinical research to separate “academia” from “clinical practice,” a fact that I am reminded of annually when I am forced to attempt to divide up the percentage of activities involved in each pursuit!

Unless an individual at an academic institution is involved in literal “laboratory research,” he usually sees patients in combination with residents and fellows, although the percentages of time devoted to these activities probably vary quite considerably.

Back when I originally joined the Academy, I did so because it was the essential source of educational materials for continuous learning and improvement. Through the years, it has become necessary for the Academy to become more involved in advocacy issues and the “business of ophthalmology” as circumstances in American medicine have evolved. Still, the mission of the Academy regarding advancing professional interests and education to benefit the public remains an essential reason to become involved.

That’s why I got involved back in the early 80s, joining the Editorial Review Board of a new Modules program. I went on to join, then chair, the Retinal Panel of the Retinal Preferred Practice Pattern, eventually becoming an Associate Secretary in the Modules program in the late 80’s and early 90s.  I also served on the Academy’s Board of Trustees from 1998 to 2001.

I felt it was also important to be involved in other groups within the ophthalmic world. That’s why I elected to be a director on the American Board of Ophthalmology from 1997 to 2004, chairing the board in that last year, as well as president of the Retina Society in 2004 and 2005, and secretary/treasurer of the American Ophthalmological Society from 1999 to 2006. Finally, I served on and later chaired the FDA ophthalmic devices panel.

Given all of my involvement in the practice, education and business of ophthalmology, I have great visions for our profession. I believe that the future of ophthalmology lies in its role as the major leader in provision of eye care for the world. It is vital that we enhance our abilities to promote the special training that we have received. We need to develop better models of care to be able to optimally serve an ever-aging population, and we need to enhance our efforts to work with other national and super-national ophthalmological organizations in providing educational materials to reduce preventable blindness around the world.

The pursuit of such a vision quite obviously will require the participation of the young ophthalmologists that enter our field. One of the best ways to get involved early is to join the Academy as a resident member, becoming involved in a variety of opportunities that the Academy features for young ophthalmologists, and eventually joining the Leadership Development Program. I also recommend serving in a local ophthalmology department, at least on a part-time basis. This can be a valuable means of meeting people who can help to create opportunities for leadership within our profession.

But, most importantly, I encourage you to pursue your dreams and attempt to find a job situation in which you will be happy. If you are married or significantly involved, it is also quite important that you consider the opinions of your significant other, especially when it comes to issues such as geographic location, practice and lifestyle, and income requirements. By addressing these topics early, your personal life and professional life will be the better for it.

Finally, at the end of the day, may you enjoy our genuinely unique subspecialty as much as I have.

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About the author: Charles P. Wilkinson, MD, is the current president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. He is the chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, which is part of an integrated residency program with Wilmer Eye Institute. Dr. Wilkinson is also a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.