Alums inspired by clinical experiences

Photos of two alums

Who knows if the catalysts for change at NECO 50 years ago thought about whether its graduates would embrace what they experienced, but many have. Read how some NECO alumni were inspired by their experiences training in community health centers.

Matt Bauer, OD ’09

Optometrist at Health Partners Clinic, MinnesotaHead and shoulder photo of Dr. Matt Bauer and former eye clinic director at Open Cities Health Center

From the start Matt Bauer wanted his clinical education to expose him to the kind of diverse patient population he hoped to work with after graduation. Until he visited NECO, he’d never heard of community health centers. He would find that neither had many of the other optometry schools where he interviewed. It was the opportunity to rotate through community health centers that convinced him to attend NECO.

“I’ve always been interested in providing better access to care for people who really need it. I just didn’t know the mechanisms for doing that,” said Dr. Bauer. His clinical rotations at Charles River, South Boston, and South End Community Health Centers showed him the way.

“You can practice all you want in preclinic or on your classmates, but you need to get comfortable working with real patients. NECO puts you in situations to succeed, like getting you into clinical experiences early on. The more exposure you have, over a longer period of time, the better the comfort level with patients. If your clinical training is a part of it and you’re applying everything you learn along the way, that helps to foster a sense of confidence.”

His CHC experience helped him become comfortable interacting with other health care providers, “You realize quickly, even as a student, that when you go and talk to a primary care provider about diabetic eye disease, you’re the eye expert. And you need to work together in order to really move the patient’s health forward.”

“Working in a health center teaches you to look at patients in a bigger picture way. Their eyes are just one aspect of their health. Many eye conditions are related to systemic health care. And when you’re dealing with an at-risk population, you have to look at the social determinants of health. Working at community health centers teaches you these things.”

Hardeep Kataria, OD ’12, FAAO

Dr. Kataria next to equipment in an exam room.

Dr. Hardeep Katara was influenced by her experiences at NECO.

Medical Optometrist, Advanced Retina Associates in Oxnard, California

For Hardeep Kataria, it wasn’t a straight line to a career in optometry. As a pre-med student exploring different medical professions, a chance volunteer position at an optometry clinic at the Malcom Randall Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Gainesville, Florida, introduced her to the profession. But it was NECO and the community health centers that fed her passion for medical optometry and community service.

“I was attracted to the close-knit aspect of NECO and to the curriculum that placed students in clinical situations as early as their first year. At other schools, it was two years of book work, and you wouldn’t start clinical rotations until the end of second year, beginning of the third.”

NECO introduced her to CHCs: “At the community health centers you see a diverse range of diseases, of demographics, people of different ages and ethnicity. It helps you mature as a clinician when you have that diverse experience right from the beginning.”

“I started off being very passionate about low vision, and as I went to different health centers, I learned I really loved ocular disease. I found that’s where my passion was. The patient exposure I had in the CHCs helped me change my focus.”

Today Dr. Kataria is doing 100% medical optometry in a private practice in California. She also started a free clinic in her own community. “The community health center system teaches us not only how different specialties can work together, but also how we can come together within our own profession, and how to do community outreach to help the patients within our local area. Had I not been involved in community health centers at NECO, I wouldn’t have been so motivated to be involved in my own community.”

Ron Ferrucci, OD, FAAO

Greater Milford Eye Associates, Milford, MA
Ron Ferrucci’s optometry career has been driven by a passion that started as a NECO student during his rotation at the South End Community Health Center.

“NECO’s close affiliation with the community health centers was central to our efforts to successfully persuade the Massachusetts legislature to increase optometry’s scope of practice.”

“I saw people who had different health conditions that affected the eyes, people who did not have eye exams regularly, a population that from a clinical point of view was more interesting and more in need of care. It was inspirational to recognize and diagnose these cases, but it was frustrating to know that I could help these patients even more but was prevented by law from doing so.”

That recognition began a 40+ year commitment to enhancing the scope of practice for the optometry profession and pushed Dr. Ferrucci to leadership roles at the American Optometric Students Association, the American Optometric Association, the Massachusetts Society of Optometrists, and the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education.

Working through these organizations and with the help of colleagues in the field and at NECO, Dr. Ferrucci helped navigate a path that won much-needed support from leaders at the Mass. League of Community Health Centers, CHC directors and sympathetic health care providers who agreed to testify in support of legislation that would allow optometrists to administer diagnostic and therapeutic drugs.

His work helped pass the 1985 Massachusetts Diagnostic Pharmaceutical Agents bill, the 1997 Massachusetts Therapeutic Pharmaceutical Agents bill, and the Massachusetts Glaucoma and Orals bill which passed on January 2, 2021.

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NECO celebrates 50 years of commitment to community-based training. In 2022, NECO recognizes 50 years of training students and serving patients in community health centers throughout the region. As the first optometry school to conceive and create such a clinical training model, NECO has influenced thousands of optometrists and optometry itself. This is the story of how it all began.

NECO’s commitment to community health centers continues today. Dr. Amy Moy explains the passion and commitment to community-based clinical training.

Beyond the eye exam: Cultural competency and compassion at the core of training. Meng Meng Xu, OD, is the Director of Eye Care Services and a preceptor at South Boston Community Health Center, one of the community health centers  in NECO’s where student interns learn much more than clinical skills.