In recognition of the year 2020 and the significance of 20/20 in the field of optometry, the UAB School of Optometry is recognizing alumni whose careers have impacted communities, set precedents, or moved the profession forward in some way. With this in mind, meet Brandon Runyon, OD. 

In July 2019, he became the Chinle Service Unit’s Chief of Optometry.  Since then, he has continued to serve as the residency program coordinator in addition to supervising and coordinating eye care services for approximately 37,000 Native Americans (predominantly Navajo) between the hospital clinic and two satellite outpatient optometry clinics. He would have never guessed this is where he would be now. Practicing the full scope of optometric practice has been very rewarding, affording him the opportunity to encounter and manage some very challenging and/or uncommon conditions that would otherwise be seen in a specialist’s office.

What year did you graduate from UABSO? 2013

Describe your optometry career path and what you’re doing now. I finished my optometry training at UABSO in 2013, which was then followed by completion of residency training in family practice and ocular disease at Northeastern State University Oklahoma College of Optometry (NSUOCO) in 2014.

During my residency, patient care was centered around serving a Native American population (predominantly Cherokee), and most of my time was spent in NSUOCO’s hospital-based eye clinic and performing advanced scope procedures such as laser and minor surgical procedures.

Following residency, I was hired as a staff optometrist at a hospital-based optometry clinic at Chinle Comprehensive Health Care Facility, which is a federally-operated hospital within the Navajo Area Indian Health Service. I quickly established a minor surgical procedures clinic at the hospital and became heavily involved in the on-site optometry residency program, which led to an appointment as adjunct faculty at Marshall B. Ketchum University’s Southern California College of Optometry and eventually selection as the residency program coordinator in July 2016.

In July 2019, I became the Chinle Service Unit’s Chief of Optometry.  Since then, I have continued to serve as the residency program coordinator in addition to supervising and coordinating eye care services for approximately 37,000 Native Americans (predominantly Navajo) between our hospital clinic and two satellite outpatient optometry clinics.

Who/What influenced the direction for your optometry career? While at UABSO, I had major influences from Drs. Mark Swanson, Tammy Than, and Marcella Frazier. They all managed to inspire me, directly and indirectly, to be the best possible clinician and to push the limits of my knowledge.  As a student, I was heavily involved in SVOSH, and participated in countless volunteer community screenings, Remote Area Medical clinics, and several international SVOSH trips. This led to an interest in caring for the underserved populations.

During residency, I found the higher volume of pathology and complexity of patients in a hospital environment to be challenging, and the learning experience and co-management with multiple medical specialties was enjoyable. Those patient encounters, in combination with mentorship from Drs. Nathan Lighthizer, Lee Carr, Michelle Welch, and Rich Castillo from NSUOCO really expanded my knowledge and interest in clinical teaching, public health, and hospital-based eye care.

I knew that I wanted to work in a setting in which I could continue using the knowledge, procedural skills, and experience I had gained as a student and resident, as well as be continually challenged in clinical care and perhaps be involved in some level of clinical teaching. As I was searching for jobs during the last half of my residency, I could not seem to find the right fit for the next step in my professional journey. I had looked all over the country, but the job prospects did not align with my interests. Fortunately, a colleague and fellow UABSO schoolmate, Dr. Paula Johns, convinced me to apply for a position with Indian Health Service.

After accepting the position in Chinle, AZ, I was excited about starting my professional career but felt a deep level of anxiety as I would be transitioning and relocating to a very remote portion of the country where I had no family and minimal social network (with the exception of Dr. Johns who would be 2.5 hours away!). However, it was only a matter of a few weeks before I had developed new friendships with colleagues at work, spanning the spectrum of ODs, MDs, PharmDs, RNs, PTs, DMDs, and other healthcare personnel.

As I reflect on that decision to take the proverbial leap and relocate, I cannot be thankful enough for the truly special effects it has had on my clinical practice, professional relationships, and friendships.  I am extremely grateful for the continued professional mentorship I’ve received over the years as a student, resident, and even now as a doctor. It has certainly had a major impact on the direction of my career.

Would you ever have thought your optometry career would take this direction? Why or why not? I would have never guessed I would be where I am now. I thoroughly enjoyed my student rotation in a multi-specialty ophthalmology group, working alongside cataract, cornea, glaucoma, and oculoplastic specialists. I had envisioned that this was my desired practice environment due to the variety of pathology to which I was exposed. I searched for jobs in similar settings as I was completing residency, but fell short as most of those practices were either hiring their own in-house residents or wanted several years of experience to qualify for their positions.

Additionally, I thought for sure that a more urban, less rural environment would provide me with the social support and activities that I enjoyed, so positions in more rural areas were of less interest to me at the time. It seemed as if I had only blinked and residency had gone by along with a couple years of clinical practice, and I suddenly found myself realizing I had become a public health optometrist in a rural hospital.

In what ways has your career path been rewarding or why this path a good fit for you? This career path has been highly rewarding on so many levels. First, working with an underserved population with a great deal of medical complexity has continually challenged me daily at work, in addition to teaching me something new almost every single day. I’ve been able to experience clinical practice as an integral part of a multidisciplinary health care team, which has fostered confidence in communicating with other medical providers and elevated the confidence of our medical providers in optometry’s role in a hospital/healthcare setting.  Practicing the full scope of optometric practice has been very rewarding, affording me the opportunity to encounter and manage some very challenging and/or uncommon conditions that would otherwise be seen in a specialist’s office.

Because our patients are generally more complex and we are the only eye care practice within 50+ miles in any direction, we form lasting relationships with our patients and their families. I’m often recognized when I encounter them at the local post office and grocery store.

Coordinating the optometry residency program has also kept me fulfilled, forcing me to engage in the literature and learning new things almost daily. Participating in clinical teaching and education of the resident has been highly rewarding as we are engaged in constant enhancement of their clinical experience, competence, and confidence.

What advice would you give someone interested in a similar path? As a student, I would focus on comprehensive medical eye care and scheduling quality student rotations with quality mentorships. While a busy ophthalmology practice may give you lots of patient encounters, are they quality encounters? What are you taking away from those encounters? Did anyone stop to spend more than 30 seconds explaining the case to you or rechecking your exam? Are your preceptors engaged in the literature? Are they engaged in your learning? Or are you essentially an extra technician? Select externships based on their overall quality, clinical experience, and mentorship opportunities.

Residency training is critical in excelling in a public health and/or hospital setting, as we must be prepared for any clinical situation thrown our way from evaluating patients in clinic to evaluating patients bedside in the ER. Pursue residency programs that offer predominantly direct patient care experience (tech support is a bonus!) along with a combination of challenging clinical cases and structured didactic education to reinforce your learning and improve clinical competence and confidence. Hospital-based programs within the VA or IHS are excellent places to start, but consideration should be given to community health center residency programs as well.

Lastly, and most importantly, reach out to your mentors and get in touch with people who work in your desired practice setting. They often will know of positions becoming available and can steer you in the right direction. Please feel free to reach out to me anytime!