Traditionally, when we think back on what we accomplished during the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) Annual Meeting, we normally think of what we learned, who we met, and the networking opportunities we had at the conference. This year, however, the most memorable recount of AAO was our involvement in the Minority Ophthalmology Mentoring Program (MOM), a joint initiative between AAO and the Association of University Professors of Ophthalmology (AUPO).
The goal of MOM is to attract underrepresented minorities (URM) into Ophthalmology by pairing mentees with mentors who are also members of minority groups. Mentees ranged from upper-level college students to medical students and physician-scientists early in their professional training.
As mentors, part of our mission was to:
1) Expose mentees to our field;
2) Share with them what fuels our commitment to preserve other's sight through clinical/surgical practice, education, and/or research;
3) Instruct them on the path that lies ahead should they wish to pursue Ophthalmology as a career; and
4) Serve as a resource to guide them in their future decisions and activities so that they can become competitive applicants to Ophthalmology residency programs.
Even though we had the commonality of being part of a URM group, the diversity in our interests, upbringing, experiences, passions, and accomplishments brought a unique perspective to this event. It was the perfect environment to candidly discuss the need to diversify the Ophthalmology workforce and to brainstorm how to overcome barriers that both providers and patients from underrepresented backgrounds face in Ophthalmology.
This initiative is very timely because population studies indicate that minorities make up 31 percent of the United States population; yet, only 8 percent of practicing ophthalmologists represent these culturally diverse groups. Predictions from the U.S. Census Bureau, including the statistic that minority groups will be closer to 50 percent of the U.S. population by the year 2050, lead us to believe there is a high risk of this gap becoming larger if we don't actively work to change this trend.
From personal experience, we know that patients find comfort when physicians can communicate in their language and understand their cultural differences. This was confirmed by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) who reported that increasing providers from underrepresented minority groups would increase access to health care, increase patient satisfaction with health care, and increase cultural competence.
The AAO annual meeting was the ideal setting for the MOM program because it provided a great opportunity for these trainees to see what Ophthalmology is all about. Besides meeting other students and their mentors, they were able to listen to ophthalmologists talk about our profession, tour the exhibit hall, and attend educational sessions and workshops to learn about the tools of the trade.
Some recurrent themes shared in this forum were:
- The value of mentorships. We heard story after story of how a mentor or role-model inspired participants to make a choice that contributed to their career progression, or how a mentor helped them believe that success was possible when others tried to dissuade them or close a door for them.
- Following one's heart. Many attendees shared how being passionate about what they do help them stay engaged even when the path ahead seemed uncertain or difficult.
- Cultivating trust. Relationships grow through trust so that together individuals can achieve more than alone. This theme came up multiple times as a key determinant of positive outcomes in diverse relationships including patient/physician, manager/staff, educator/pupil, investigator/collaborators, and parents/children relationships.
- Being kind and avoiding judgment. Learning to look at each situation from the lens of the other person and trying to meet them where they are to move forward productively is constructive.
- Being optimistic. Finding opportunities within challenges and using feedback to grow and improve is valuable.
We believe this was an opportunity for growth for mentors and mentees alike. It was a chance for us to recall choices we made because a mentor inspired or encouraged us. We feel honored to be part of this program, to have the opportunity to give back and pay it forward to the next generation.
Dr. Padovani-Claudio, a native of Puerto Rico, is a board-certified ophthalmologist and a physician-scientist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center where she serves as a Diversity Liaison to the Executive Diversity Council. She practices Pediatric Ophthalmology at the Vanderbilt's Tennessee Lions Eye Center and her research laboratory is focused on finding new treatments for angiogenic retinopathies such as diabetic retinopathy and retinopathy of prematurity. She is grateful to those who have mentored her throughout her career, and continue to do so, and hopes to do the same for others.
Dr. Laura L. Wayman is the vice chair for education in the Department of Ophthalmology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Her areas of interest are clinical and surgical resident education and graduate medical education curriculum development.