Fifty years ago, two events put in motion seismic changes for optometry: Rhode Island’s passage of the first diagnostic pharmaceutical agent (DPA) law and Bausch + Lomb’s launch of the first soft contact lens, aptly named Soflens. Each of these 1971 milestones opened up new paths for the profession. And yet, both were also continuations of core components of optometry’s DNA—professional reinvention in the case of the former and mastery of optics for the latter.
Plans to bring diagnostic—and eventually therapeutic—drugs to optometry were put in motion three years prior at the famous “LaGuardia meeting” that took place at an unassuming hotel on the grounds of the New York airport. There, Dr. Alden Haffner of SUNY College of Optometry stated, “The optometrist is a primary care provider and the optometrist has a role in the diagnosis and treatment of ocular pathology.” Those words are completely uncontroversial today but were radical at the time. In fact, the reason they’re uncontroversial today is because they were radical then.
Dr. Haffner and the other leaders of the era present at the meeting staked the profession’s future on a drive to move optometry beyond refraction and visual correction. It became the organizing principle of the profession from then on. Without their leadership, DPA and TPA laws might never have happened, or at least not with such fervor and sense of common cause.
A reader brings up the LaGuardia meeting this month in a letter to the editor (see page 30), arguing that optometry is at a similar crossroads today and in need of another rallying cry to move the profession forward. I encourage you to read his diagnosis of optometry’s current ills and offer your own thoughts.
The spiritual descendants of LaGuardia live on in the work now being done to keep expanding optometric scope of practice, as profiled in a feature article this month that recaps notable progress in recent years (see page 54). ODs are now firmly engaged in the next wave of scope expansion, bringing laser procedures and other methods of direct manipulation of ocular structures into the fold while also plugging a few holes in the therapeutic landscape, like using oral meds and performing glaucoma care with the training wheels off.
Soft contact lenses also have a tenacious individual to thank for their existence, Czech chemist Otto Wichterle, who literally built his first manufacturing apparatus out of an Erector set. B+L transformed those primitive efforts into a new product category and made contact lenses a mainstream phenomenon beginning in 1971. The lenses were primitive by today’s standards and complication rates were fairly high, but continual iteration in product design has refined soft lens wear into a relatively uncomplicated affair for most patients. And therein lies the problem. Contact lenses are now perceived to be so trivial that patients are cavalier about safety and receptive to the lures of online Rx fulfillment houses that care about nothing but profit.
Though both of 1971’s optometric advances face some growing pains these days, just pause for a moment and reflect on the momentous changes stemming from those days. All that and Led Zeppelin IV too? Not a bad year.