In New York earlier this month for Vision Expo East, one morning I shared a cab over to the Javits Center with a coworker from the division of our company that produces 20/20 and Vision Monday, both fixtures of the retailing world of eye care.

The cabbie asked us what was happening at the Javits. “It’s an optical show,” my colleague said, not incorrectly. But his framing (no pun intended, I swear) of the conference around eyewear products surprised me. Had I been riding solo that day, I likely would have said, “It’s a meeting for eye doctors.”

And there in a nutshell lies the somewhat schizophrenic identity of optometry. 

We all bring our own priorities to our day-to-day experiences, and I’ll be the first to admit that mine are on the medical aspects of eye care. But of course optical products are a huge driver of practice success and, furthermore, probably still the one aspect of eye care the public mostly associates with optometry. Still, it can be odd to see these elements sometimes manifest not merely as two halves of one whole but as entirely different events.

Walking the show floor with a newer editorial colleague on the Review team, in town for her first Vision Expo East, I wryly pointed out that, as usual, the stuff we came to see was “in the basement.” For as long as I can remember (my first VEE was in 1992), the layout of the conference puts retail exhibitors in the spacious upstairs showroom and the med/pharma events in the windowless bottom hall. A fan of British costume dramas, I notice this Upstairs, Downstairs feel of the place every year. 

That show, like the more recent Downton Abbey, chronicled the lives of a wealthy family and their staff, each with their own living quarters. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying the medically minded attendees are treated like lesser participants. But VEE does often feel like two separate lives being lived in the same house. That’s likely inevitable, given the high attendance by dispensary staff there.

Opticians and dispensing professionals comprise a huge contingent of the attendees, as it should be. They’ll always want and need to know all about the latest trends in frames and lenses. Vision Expo, like its precursor OptiFair, has always been one of the premier outlets for the retail and dispensing side of eye care. A meeting with deep roots in the multibillion-dollar optical industry owes nothing to the medical side of optometry; if they wanted to hold a purely retail event, it would be justifiable and probably highly successful. But it wouldn’t wholly reflect what optometry is today.

The organizers are to be commended for investing in the optometric CE side in recent years. The addition of education co-chairs Mark Dunbar and Ben Gaddie several years ago made medical topics a much bigger priority, and these two exceptional ODs once again put together an outstanding program this year. We shared dozens of excellent clinical insights from the optometric program through live coverage in our Twitter feed and other social media outlets during the meeting.

I learned a lot at VEE this year and it’ll be put to good use in these pages. Next year, I’d like to spend a little more time upstairs.