Although nationwide stay-at-home orders are keeping optometry students out of the classroom, they aren’t completely derailing the optometric educational track. Just weeks after the first schools shuttered their doors to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the American Academy of Optometry (AAO) and the Associations of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO) have partnered to answer an essential need: clinical hours.

Third- and fourth-year optometry students must accumulate a certain number of clinical education hours to graduate—something that won’t happen with residency programs on hold while the coronavirus sweeps the world.

“My excellent fourth-year optometry student from Southern College of Optometry (SCO) had to end her rotation with us prematurely due to the crisis,” explains Jeffrey Sterling, OD, who practices at the Greenville VA Health Care Center in Greenville, NC, an externship site for fourth-year students for several years. “At the same time, our practice stopped seeing routine eye examinations. I felt that with some of my extra time I would be able to stay involved with the fourth-year students.”

AAO/ASCO’s unprecedented program, called the Student Online Clinical Case Education Program (SOCCEP), fills the gap, offering a virtual experience to help students fulfill their clinical hour requirement. The program taps the expertise of Academy Fellows, who will provide 30-minute live-streaming and recorded experiences that present a clinical case study. Students can ask questions before the session concludes, and the presenter delivers a patient outcome. 

“I like case-driven continuing education, so I thought presenting a case to these students would be something I would enjoy,” Dr. Sterling says. “Luckily, I had some good photos of the case I wanted to present and was able to come up with a brief PowerPoint.”

Students have as many as eight sessions to choose from each weekday, with cases spanning the scope of optometric care. For more information or to register for a session, visit

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It all started with a call between SCO Dean Jenny Coyle, OD, and Academy President Barbara Caffery, OD, PhD. Dr. Coyle shared that many of her students were concerned about meeting their clinical hours to graduate. What transpired next “was a miracle, really,” Dr. Caffery says. She knew the Academy could help and felt many members would jump at the opportunity to help the next generation of ODs. Another call to the Academy’s CEO Peter Scott and, just three hours later, the launch date was set: just four days hence. The submission process was established, a call for submissions was already out the door and staff were ready to monitor the presentations.

“Peter and the staff were amazing, as were the Fellows who submitted their time,” Dr. Caffery says. “This is an example of what the Academy is. We are educators and we inspire excellence in eye care.” 

Enthusiastic Response

Once SOCCEP had momentum, it seemed to take shape quickly and without much of a hitch, according to Dr. Caffery. “Our creative and brilliant team at the Academy make it so simple,” she says. Presenters submit an online application and, once approved, receive an invitation to a brief teaching session to prepare them for the online format. Dr. Caffery was a presenter herself and felt well-prepared going into her first session. She logged on early to ensure her slides were showing and everything flowed seamlessly. 

As of April 8, the Academy has provided 80 hours of content to more than 21,000 session attendees. The demand remained, so the Academy created a fourth week of content by Fellows. Dr. Caffery notes that many students submitted questions online, and she has even received emails thanking her for the presentations.

“The presentations are being done over Zoom, which is very user-friendly,” adds Dr. Sterling.

 “I loved sharing cases with the students,” Dr. Caffery says. “I always learn something when I sit back and review a case. Also, as an Academy member, I am so proud to be a part of this important effort to help our future doctors receive the training that they need.”

A Path to the Future?

The fledgling process is a “great way to share cases, to explore certain disease themes, and so on,” Dr. Caffery enthuses. Still, “there is nothing like being with a patient,” she admits. “Nothing can substitute for that. However, it is easier to speak about a case, to analyze and speculate when there is no patient in the room.”

Once doctors and residents are back in the clinic, she sees optometrists continuing with the video case reports.

“I love the idea that I might be able to contribute to the education of our students from an ‘in the trenches' point of view,” she notes. “This type of learning by the students may serve them well as distance diagnosis becomes a greater part of our work.”

In addition, the virtual format is bringing educators together from all across the country and within varied practice modalities “without the costs associated travel and conferences,” Dr. Sterling says. “I could definitely see this type of program being added to optometric education for both students and doctors alike in the future.”