This month's Optometrist spotlight is on Dr. Erin Swift, O.D., F.A.A.O who hails from San Diego and works for a VA Hospital. We got to ask her questions on her career path, a typical day, why she chose this practice and more more.
What is your current mode of optometry practice?
I am a full-time staff optometrist for the San Diego VA hospital. I do 70% direct patient care and 30% attending residents (we do not have students at the SD VA).
Describe your career path from graduation to where you are today.
I graduated from NECO in 2008 and then did residency at the San Diego VA until 2009. Next, I worked part-time around San Diego County for one year: I did per diem work for the VA, several maternity leave fill-in jobs at private practices, in addition to having one stable part-time job at a private practice. Then, after a year, I was offered a full-time position at the SD VA as a staff OD and have worked there ever since. I continue to do private practice fill-in work on Saturdays to make extra money, as well as keep connected to optometry outside of a hospital setting.
What made you decide to pursue a career as an Optometrist?
My dad had a friend that is an optometrist; he owns a private practice outside of Nashville, TN. He let me observe at his office during several summers when I was in high school and he spoke highly of the profession. I also had some eye issues as a child due to trauma, so I was familiar with optometrists and thought it would be a good career choice. I wanted something in health care (NOT pharmacy like all my parents!) and a little less time consuming than med school (or anyone spitting in my face like dentists, haha).
What is your typical patient demographic at the VA?
The age of the typical patient at the VA is getting younger due to the recent conflicts, but I would say the average age is still above fifty and ~85-90% male. We do not treat dependents or children at the VA, only Veterans. Most patients have some systemic disease (nearly all are hypertensive), with a good deal of diabetes, glaucoma suspicion, and macular degeneration.
What does a typical day at the VA look like?
Each doctor sees ~12 patients per day and we do the entire exam, no techs to work up the patients. However, we do have techs for auxiliary tests such as visual fields or photos/OCT. I see patients myself 3.5 days a week and I attend two residents 1.5 days per week. I work at 3 different clinics: 3 days in Mission Valley at an outpatient clinic, 1 day at the main hospital in La Jolla, and one day in Chula Vista (outpatient clinic). Most of the staff doctors at the SD VA do a combination of direct patient care and attending, as well as rotate between at least two clinic sites.
What are the biggest pros and cons of working for the VA?
Pros: interesting patients (both in personality and presence of disease); able to see patient's complete medical history and medications; able to order additional testing easily (visual fields, photos, blood work, MRI, etc.), good benefits (affordable health insurance, lots of days off - fed holidays, sick leave, vacation days)
Cons: do not see very much acute disease (red eye, etc.), red-tape due to government job, limited earning potential
What are your long-term goals as an OD?
Due to the changing landscape of optometry and the shift toward medical based care, I do see myself staying at the VA. I feel I can provide the best care for my patients without having to worry about if their insurance will cover extra testing, etc. Also, unfortunately, glasses sales aren't as lucrative in private practice as it once was.
Any advice for a young optometrist looking into a career as a VA OD?
Be realistic about job opportunities: saturated markets such as big cities or areas around optometry schools are difficult to find full-time work at one place. I was very lucky to get my position and I know several doctors my age who still work several part-time positions. Also, be aware that optometry is a legislated profession, so it's important to be involved in & informed about that process.