Unique Optometry Program to Graduate First Class in 2017
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students practicing in the OD lab

Unique Optometry Program to Graduate First Class in 2017

With its first cohort set to graduate this year, Salus University Pennsylvania College of Optometry’s Doctor of Optometry Accelerated Scholars Program is continuing on a path to success. This three-year program is the first in the United States. In fact, this inaugural group of 10 students (higher than the anticipated six to eight goal) secured a 100% pass rate on Part 1 of the National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO).

While the Accelerated Scholars Program is 36 months and the Traditional Program is 44 months, equivalent credits are earned. The difference? The credits are distributed in a unique way, and by using a quarters system, the Scholars Program is compressed and therefore more demanding with fewer breaks. The academic year for the Traditional Program is divided into three terms/semesters.

The Scholars program was conceived after the release of the 2010 Carnegie Report, “Educating Physicians: A Call for Reform of Medical Schools and Residency,” which highlighted how higher education is changing, group learning is becoming more important, and the issues of cost and time associated with earning a medical degree, according to Salus PCO interim dean Melissa Trego, OD ’04, PhD. She noted other fields such as dentistry, pharmacy and law have already made the accelerated switch.

student conducting eye exam“Students are becoming a lot more aware of the price of education,” she said. “There’s an incentive to these students. They pay three years of tuition and living expenses and it’s a potential year to get them into the workforce sooner or complete a residency, which we encourage all of our students to do.”

Before the first Scholars Program cohort began in July 2014, a small pilot group of Traditional Program students were given the opportunity to accelerate their clinical skills and enter The Eye Institute, the University’s main clinical facility, five months earlier than usual. The resulting program emphasizes guided independent learning, lecture and laboratory instruction, small group learning, case-based learning, and web-enhanced instruction.

The didactic portion of the program is accelerated, according to Elizabeth Tonkery, OD, MPH ‘13, associate dean of the Scholars Program, with students receiving five quarters of direct care and observing in clinic for three quarters, as well as very strong mentorship from faculty. Their coursework is flipped, so they learn clinical techniques first, then theory.

Labs are also accelerated—students in the Scholars Program have four hours a week for six months instead of two hours a week for a year. These students then complete four externships in a single year: one at The Eye Institute, one at a Veterans Affairs or Indian Health Services facility, one at a contact lens site, and one with a pediatric emphasis.

“Because this cohort is pretty agile, we’re really able to individualize the program to the demands of the cohort,” Dr. Tonkery said. For instance, students requested additional optics knowledge, and problem solving sessions were added to that course. And, because the Scholars Program moves at such a fast pace, according to Dr. Tonkery, any issues like this are immediately addressed by faculty.

Essentially, the focus on individual student learning styles and inherent leadership skills guides the path for Scholars students. “The goal wasn’t to create a better product or a better clinician. It was to create the same clinician in a shorter amount of time,” said Dr. Trego. “I think we’re able to create a great product. You create a strong mentorship with the students because of the size of the program. Optometry is a very traditional profession and there’s a certain way people think things need to be done. What we’re finding is that students have different expectations now.”

Pennsylvania College of Optometry Scholars Program at LOFK

The application process for the Scholars Program has been adjusted and differs from the Traditional Program to include the addition of a multiple mini-interview, a process where applicants are asked critical or ethical questions to have the more articulate and mature students stand out. Drs. Tonkery and Trego note the program is looking for out-of-the-box thinkers—students with a certain mindset who want to become excellent doctors and think about things differently.

“We want students who can think critically, think well on their feet and have a certain level of maturity,” said Dr. Tonkery. “It’s not just the students who are excelling academically—of course we have high standards in the program—but we’re not just looking for the smart student. We want the intelligent student who has a certain work ethic, a certain mindset and a certain willingness to become the well-rounded doctor we all wish we could have.”

Another outcome of the Scholars Program is its effect on the Traditional Program. The Doctor of Optometry curriculum is currently in a review process, and the successful ways in which Scholars students learn may end up impacting the way all students in both programs learn. This effect has been seen with the amount of laser and contact lens exposure. Faculty added additional training for each to the Scholars Program as crucial learning assets that contribute to the University’s goal of ensuring graduates can practice in every state, including those with an expanded scope of practice. Because this proved successful for the Scholars Program, the opportunity will be added for the Traditional Program, too.

As the years pass and with its impending first graduating class, the Scholars Program continues to exceed its own expectations. With the program now completely filled, the second and third cohorts have surpassed goals as well. The class of 2018 cohort has 14 students while the class of 2019 cohort has 12 students. This is the maximum the program will take for any one Scholars Program cohort— compared with 150 in the Traditional Program—to remain unique, hands-on, and independent-study focused.

Leaders of the Scholars Program are looking forward to an ever-changing course of study for students who are the right fit. “We continue to look at the program on a regular basis. We continually take a survey of the optometric landscape and ensure we’re keeping pace with that,” said Dr. Tonkery. “As long as we’re adding to the community, we’ll continue to provide for highly motivated students.”

Learn More About the Accelerated Scholars Program