As a college student, Maria Higgins pursued a biology degree with a chemistry minor at Millersville University because she knew she wanted to enter medicine. A lack of interest in surgery combined with her fascination with the eyes led to an obvious choice - optometry.
After graduating from Millersville, the White Haven, Pennsylvania, native enrolled in the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, in Elkins Park. The college had an excellent clinical reputation, and she reports that she excelled there thanks to the preparation she received at Millersville University. At PCO, Dr. Higgins received clinical hands-on experience early on, allowing her the experience crucial to success in medical fields.
Dr. Higgins entered the workforce in private practice, specializing in children, behavioral vision and perceptual evaluations. She went on to own a private practice, where her interaction expanded to encompass a wider range of patients. Her areas of interest now include contact lenses, diabetic eye problems and ocular disease.
Although the managerial aspects of owning a practice and dealing with insurance companies are challenging, Dr. Higgins enjoys getting to know her patients and helping them not only to see better, but also to have better ocular health.
What inspired you to go into optometry?
I had always liked the medical field but did not want to be involved in surgery. The eyes fascinated me, so I decided to specialize in that. I decided on optometry as a college student.
How has your career unfolded?
I have worked only in private practice, initially specializing in children at a large multi-doctor practice, then expanding into basic primary care in the practice that I now own where there are two doctors. Children, behavioral vision, and perceptual evaluations were my specialty for the first two years of my career. Once I moved to the practice where I am now, I became more involved in patients of all ages, contact lenses, and ocular disease.
I am a fellow in the American Academy of Optometry. I am a member of the Western PA Optometric Association, the Pennsylvania Optometric Association, and the American Optometric Association. I volunteer for an organization called Radio Information Services, which reads the newspaper on the air for visually impaired individuals.
What would you change about your career?
The insurance is a down side to any medical care. Many companies now are telling the doctors what tests they can perform, how much they can charge, as well as telling patients which doctors they can see.
You are involved in several professional organizations; how can optometry students tap into these organizations?
The organizations that I am involved in include the national, state, and local optometry associations. Organized optometry is responsible for all of our political health as a profession. There are student branches of all of these organizations, and it is important to be involved in them.
What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?
My main professional goal is to purchase a building for the office, as we currently are renting our space. I think it would be more financially enabling to own the building. Personally, I try to learn something every day from every interaction and situation. My goal is to remain a happy, well-balanced, and relaxed individual.
Tell us about your education. How did you choose which school(s) to go?
I graduated from Millersville University in Lancaster, and then I went to the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, which I chose because of its excellent clinical reputation.
What factors should prospective optometry students consider when choosing a school?
One important factor when choosing an optometry school is if their area of specialty is one that the school focuses on. Different schools have different areas of focus. Location and tuition is often a factor for students, as they both vary widely. The student-to-faculty ratio is something to be considered as well as how soon the hands-on clinical education starts. The more individual attention a student gets from the faculty, and the sooner the clinical education starts, the better.
Describe the 'hands-on' phases of your optometry education.
My optometry training started in college with a biology degree with a chemistry minor. Millersville was unique in that they had cadavers for our anatomy class, and that really helped me prepare for optometry school. Once I got to optometry school, the first year involved all book work. The second year was book work and observation in the clinic. The third year was when we were introduced as clinicians. The fourth year was completely clinical externships. Now, students see patients in their first year, I believe.
How well did college prepare you for life as an optometrist?
PCO prepared me for life as an optometrist by introducing me to the actual hands-on part of the job as early as possible.
What types of continuing education requirements should optometrists expect once they graduate and land a job?
As far as continuing education goes, each state is different. Pennsylvania requires 30 hours every two years. The classes are offered as local speakers or at state or national meetings.
In retrospect, what do you know now, that you wish you knew before you began to pursue your education?
I think the only thing that was a surprise to me once I was an optometrist was how pervasive the insurance companies can be.
Describe a typical day of work for you. What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?
A typical day at work for me involves getting to the office a half hour before patients are scheduled to check my email, which is available for patients, write letters, clear up odds and ends from the day before. Then I see patients every 30-40 minutes. Throughout the day, there are many duties that I perform between patients, like signing checks, managing staff, ordering some contacts and making decisions about the practice itself. The skills that my job demand involve primarily being able to deal with people effectively. Whether it is staff or patients, the main focus of optometry is people. People skills are a must.
What are some common myths about your profession?
The most common myth about optometry is that it is nothing more than the "Better, one or two" test and that optometrists only do glasses, when it actually involves complete ocular and systemic health issues.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
The most difficult aspect of my job is always being "on" with patients. We try never to bring our personal lives into the office and always present the best appearance, but it can be tiring on some days. Sometimes, staff presents a challenge as far as managing goes. People in general, whether as patients or staff, always are different and changing, and that can be challenging.
What are the hottest optometry specialties? What other kinds of job tracks are available to graduating students?
Some things that optometrists can specialize in, aside from contacts and glasses, are children's vision, including behavior evaluations and vision therapy, ocular disease including hospital work, nursing home care, low-vision evaluations and commercial optometry.
What are the best ways to get a job in optometry?
The best way to get a job in optometry is networking with optometrists already in practice. Local society meetings are a great way to meet optometrists looking for associates.
What are some of the top challenges facing optometrists during the next decade?
The future of optometry will be very dependent on insurance companies and legislation. Optometrists need to think about which insurance plans they are accepting and what it means for their practice and optometry in general. Insurances are becoming more invasive into the private practice, and this needs to be watched. Expanding optometrists' scope of practice is an important step for the future of optometry. We must keep or expand the privileges that we have. Both of these issues are important ones for the future.
What do you enjoy about your career?
I enjoy that optometry allows you to help people see their world better and more comfortably, yet also makes sure that they are not at risk for serious eye problems. I enjoy taking the time to get to know my patients and help them by really listening to what they have to say.