Administrators seek steps to training ophthalmic staff

December 1, 2007

It's a difficult task to create a community-based staff training program to help certified ophthalmic assistants (COAs) become certified ophthalmic technicians (COTs), but the difficulty can be overcome by determination, dedication, and desire.

Key Points

Minneapolis-It's a difficult task to create a community-based staff training program to help certified ophthalmic assistants (COAs) become certified ophthalmic technicians (COTs), but the difficulty can be overcome by determination, dedication, and desire.

Mary K. Nordenstrom, COT, and Martha Conway, certified ophthalmic executive (COE), have developed a staff training program in the Twin Cities that can be replicated elsewhere. Nordenstrom is administrator at Vitreoretinal Surgery, Minneapolis, an eight-doctor, six-site vitreoretinal practice. She joined the ophthalmology field in 1972 as a technician. Conway, with 23 years of experience, is administrator at Eye Care Associates, Minneapolis, which has 10 doctors and five sites.

Nordenstrom and Conway pooled their experience and formulated first the strategy for a community-based training program, then the tactics to implement it within a local ophthalmic community. The keys to the success of their program included encouraging and enabling local ophthalmic practices to work together to achieve common goals.

In this case, the need that was identified was recruitment. "At meeting after meeting of the Minneapolis Society of Ophthalmic Administrators (MSOA), we kept hearing that practices didn't have enough people to go around, and they were having trouble getting the staff they did have trained to the level where they would be most valuable," explained Nordenstrom. "In our clinic, for example, we had a lot of very talented COAs, but we couldn't get them up to the technician level, which is where we felt they really needed to perform."

Nordenstrom, Conway, and others from the MSOA, which represents 15 clinics and 120 doctors, researched the resources in the Twin Cities. One resource they found was a 2-year school for certified ophthalmic medical technologists (COMTs). That school, however, was in a transition phase between administrators and could not participate at that time.

The next step was to talk with the educators and doctors in the community, many of whom were excited about participating in a COA-to-COT program. On request, administrators of MSOA member clinics provided the names of their trainers and COAs. The COAs were surveyed by the newly formed MSOA education committee chaired by Nordenstrom and Conway.

The questions asked of COAs included "Are you interested in a COA-to-COT program?", "When would you take it?", and "Would you be willing to take it, or take it only if your clinic paid for it?"

"We got back every survey that we sent out," Nordenstrom said. "That's how interested people were in advancing their careers. Given that level of response and interest, the decision was made for the MSOA education committee to go ahead and plan a program."

The plan takes shape

The planning included site selection, legal consultations, and, of course, the inevitable paperwork. The proposed site was the Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis. The legal consultations involved getting the program continuing medical education (CME)-eligible, discussions about the need for a disclaimer on the course materials, and concerns about liability.

"Many of you who who have participated in Joint Commission on Allied Health Professionals in Ophthalmology (JCAHPO)-certified courses know all about putting out disclaimers along the lines of, 'These materials are provided as teaching aids and do not amount to, and should not be substituted for, medical or clinical advice,'" Nordenstrom said. "Because we were going to be a CME program, we thought that was a little bit of overkill, but we still needed to get the wording right."

Liability issues, the education committee's lawyers assured them, depended on liability coverage of the location where the program would be held.

The paperwork came in the form of student loan forms and employee retention agreements.