Friday 11 July 2008

Eye See You - Canadian Optometry Board Exams

This past month about 200 people descended upon the UW campus, and specifically the Optometry building. The people came for a number of reasons, but all tied to the Optometry Board exams. UW is one of two schools in Canada where the Canadian Examiners in Optometry / Examinateurs Canadiens en Optometrie (CEO/ECO) run by the Canadian Standards Association in Optometry (CSAO) take place. This is usually an annual event, but this year so many applicants applied for the board exams it was split over two weekends, one in April and this past weekend. There are a number of different characters in this event - the Examiners, the Candidates, test subjects and volunteers or support staff. Each character type comes for different reasons, and plays a different role.

The Examiners are members of the Optometry profession; they come for a few reasons. First as part of their profession they must take continuing education courses to keep up their own certification to practice. Coming and helping with this weekend, meets some of their requirements in this field. Also their travel costs and accommodations are covered, therefore the event is not a loss financially for them. Also they receive an honorarium for their aid in the process. There are 24 examiners per day to make this event successful. The chief examiner this year was Dr. Jonathan Arnel, a hulking man who led the weekend with a joyful smile and strict attention to details.

The second category is the subjects; these are people who meet specific needs for the practical eye exam, or who have normal eyes and are part of the basic eye exam assessment. Subjects can come for a half day, full day or both full days. They are paid $60 per half day plus parking if they drive and park at UW. I met subjects that had been doing this for a dozen years now and had no plans to stop volunteering in this way. There are 30 subjects needed each day, and at least 24 each session. Subjects are needed who meet each of the four sections of the practical exam in Clinical Skills Assessment. Plus they need spares for each test type in case of a conflict of interest, or a subject needing a break. Subjects arrive early on their first day or part day and are examined by two Examiners who create the baseline the Candidates will be judged against. One session I had to spare because the student was from UW and knew the subject, creating a conflict of interest. Subjects are approached and recruited by UW's own Nancy Yowski.

Nancy Yowski also coordinates the support staff and volunteers who help make the event successful. Without these people, what needs to happen would not happen, at least not in such a timely fashion. On their walkie talkies they make sure that for every session every examinee and Candidate and Examiner are where they should be when they should. They also look after the needs in the facilities - signage, set-up, take-down and other support roles. Nancy helps to run a tight ship that stays efficient.

The Candidates come next, for all the other people are there to test them to see if they have learned enough in 6 or 7 years of school to become an Optometrist. There were 91 candidates this past weekend and 59 the weekend in April. They come from all over Canada, the US and from abroad. Anyone wishing to practice Optometry in Canada must write these board exams. I met candidates from around the world, and many from home. This session had many students from UW. I met 3 cousins from Calgary who had all studied in different schools in the States, had written their US boards the week before and were all hoping to practice close to home in Alberta. I met others who also planned on writing the UK boards to keep future options open.

Now that we know the players, what happens next? As mentioned, each subject has a baseline created for what the Candidates' answers will be compared to. The Clinical Skills assessment consists of 4 exams: binocular vision, ocular health, refraction/case history and contact lenses/glasses. If a candidate fails a section they can reattempt that section during the next set of exams; the same for a second failure. If however they miss a section a third time, they must do a remedial year, apply to a committee to redo the boards and they must redo all 4 sections. The candidates have 40 minutes for each section, with a break in between. They move from station to station until they have completed all four sections. Yet even when they finish these practical exams their week is only beginning.

After the practical exams, they move on to written exams. This is composed of 3 exams spread over 5 sittings. The 3 exams are Optometric Knowledge, Ocular Therapeutics, and Clinical Judgments. The exam on Optometric knowledge is written in 3 three-hour sessions over two days and is comprised of 280 multiple choice questions. The Ocular Therapeutics is 120 multiple choice questions done in a three-hour exam. The final exam in Clinical Judgment is 100 multiple choice questions done in one sitting. Yet even after passing those five written exams and the clinical exams from the CSAO, they are still not yet licensed to practice. Candidates still have to write a Jurisprudence exam for each province in which they wish to practice, in Canada.

So even though 200 people descended upon UW this week, of the 91 Candidates, who knows how many will be practicing Optometry soon. Yet it was a fun weekend for the examiners with a catered dinner Friday evening, and breakfast and lunch catered on Saturday and Sunday for the support staff, subjects and examiners. But after all those exams and at least six years of school, you sure better hope you enjoy the work once you get into the field. So farewell till next year to the examiners, and good luck to the candidates - hopefully we will not see you again next spring.

(First Published in Imprint 2008-06-27 as 'Eyeful of Testing'.)

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