A Sit Down – with Dr. Barry Tannen
This post appears as part of a series called Sit Down – candid conversations with real people detailing their journeys and experiences with Vision Therapy.
A Sit Down – with Dr. Barry Tannen
For the benefit of our readers, can you give us a little bit of your background, including how you are involved in Developmental Optometry?
I received a bachelor’s degree in Biology from Colgate University and a Doctor of Optometry from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (now Salus University). I practiced in the National Health Service Corps (in Omaha, NE) for three years and then joined the faculty of the SUNY College of Optometry’s Vision Therapy Department as Assistant Chief of Vision Therapy in 1985. In 1988, I co-founded our private practice EyeCare Professionals, PC in Hamilton Square, NJ., along with Nicholas Despotidis, OD, whom I became friendly with when he was doing a Vision Therapy Residency at SUNY. I left full time academia, but stayed on the Vision Therapy staff on a part-time basis where I remain to this day.
Our private practice now has three full time docs (Ivan Lee, OD joined us in 2000) and a Vision Therapy Resident. We are truly a full scope practice; each of us still is involved in primary care but we each have a specialty area as well. Dr. Despotidis is heavily involved corneal reshaping and specialty contact lenses, Dr. Lee in ocular disease and corneal reshaping, and I am very involved in vision therapy and rehabilitation.
What led you to Developmental Optometry?
It was completely a personal experience. When I was a student at Colgate University I started to develop severe asthenopic symptoms. I went to see an ophthalmologist who examined me and told me, “you have 20/20 vision and your eyes are healthy. You should stop complaining, worrying your family, and start to bear down and study harder. This is college; it’s supposed to be hard.”
While he succeeded in making me feel guilty, he didn’t help my asthenopia at all; it was just really hard to concentrate on what I was reading. I finally figured out that if I tape recorded the lectures and played them back while taking notes, that I could learn the material and do well on tests. The only problem is that each hour of lecture took about 2 or 3 hours to transcribe. I can genuinely say that college wasn’t the best four years of my life!
Serendipitously, I decided on Optometry as a profession. In my first year at PCO, we were required to have an eye exam. The third year intern who was examining me found me to have a nearpoint of convergence of 16 inches (indicating a severe convergence insufficiency). At that point he told me to stop “fooling around” by making my eye turn out on the NPC (I presume he did not choose vision therapy as his specialty area). I was referred to the Vision Therapy Department where I was treated by none other than Dr. Leonard Press, who was the chief at that time. Not only did he successfully treat my CI, and greatly improve my visual comfort, but in the process he became a mentor to me and we established a lifelong friendship. I also became hooked on vision therapy and became his “star” pupil. I wanted to learn everything about vision therapy and developmental optometry! Several years later Dr. Press became the Chief of SUNY Vision Therapy and he was instrumental in recruiting me to become a SUNY faculty member.
Being involved in academia at SUNY simultaneous to private practice in New Jersey for the last 25 years seems to place you in a rather unique category among your peers. How has this multi-perspective world benefited you as a doctor?
For one thing, students always keep you on your feet. They ask insightful questions and they want to know the answers. This has helped me create a “learning environment” that we have incorporated into our private practice. It’s the recognition that no one has all the answers, but in the process of searching for the answers, you become a better doctor and leader. Another philosophy that I have adopted is that the best way to learn is to teach. I believe that statement wholeheartedly.
How did you become affiliated with the residency program at Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, and what do you hope the residents gain by spending a year in your practice?
I was approached by some of the forward thinking administrators of the Southern College of Optometry when the program was in its infancy. I thought the concept of having a graduate optometrist spend an entire year in our office was intriguing. The residency program has exceeded all of the expectations I had. Residents spend 70% of their time in vision therapy and rehabilitation and 30% of their time in the other clinical centers of our office, namely primary care, ocular disease, and specialty contact lenses.
Dr. Despotidis also spends a great deal of time with them helping to identify their values and goals while helping them set up short term and long term visions of their future. I help them prepare an entire package including their CV, introduction letters, and a business plan which they can present to OD’s who might be interested in bringing vision therapy into their practice. To date it’s been a great success, and the entire office loves contributing to the education of the resident.
Incredibly, you have been involved in all aspects of optometry from examinations, to lecturing, to Vision Therapy, to mentoring aspiring Developmental Optometrists in your practice. With all this experience, is there one lesson you’ve learned along the way that really stands out?
Perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned is that patients who have severe vision disorders really want to be helped. That sounds so obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind. They don’t care about my philosophy, my beliefs, or my model of vision. They want to get better. It’s helped me to be flexible in my approach to optometric care and try to find solutions to my patient’s most difficult vision problems.
You were also elected to COVD’s Board of Directors in 2011 and currently serve on the Executive Committee as the Secretary/Treasurer. Why has serving in a leadership capacity within this great organization been important to you?
I first attended the COVD Annual Meeting in 1986, the same year I became a COVD Fellow. From the moment I became involved with COVD, I felt as though I was “home.” I found it to be an incredibly warm and welcoming organization, and it’s always been a source of learning, camaraderie, and shared values for me. Over the years I’ve been asked several times whether I was interested in becoming a Board member. While I was, I found the combination of building a practice, being a faculty member, and having young children, too much to navigate while serving on the COVD board. When my children were grown, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to give back to this wonderful organization which has given so much to me.
Switching gears now, the diagnosis of ADD and ADHD in children seems to have grown exponentially in the last decade, and continues to skyrocket. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?
I think that to some degree we are creating a form of “acquired” ADD by the over-reliance of electronic stimuli such as texting and social media. These vehicles tend to be compulsive and when there is the added possibility of being “notified” whenever you receive a text for example, it’s easy to understand why are children’s attention can be so divided.
I also think that sometimes it’s easier to classify a child with an attention disorder, than understand how their unique learning style may require a different approach to teaching them. I do believe there is a neurologic condition of AD/HD, but the hyperactivity might be due to a combination of other conditions and environmental circumstances. However, it’s the hyperactivity that often prompts professionals to treat a child for an attention disorder.
A common misconception among parents is that the medications prescribed for ADD and ADHD are “curing” their child’s challenges. Do you feel there is value in reversing this perception?
In a word, yes. While I think that there can be benefit to the pharmaceutical treatment of AD/HD in certain children, I believe that on the whole, psychostimulants are prescribed too often. It’s important to realize that the medication only dampens the symptoms. The larger issues, such as problems with executive function, need to be addressed in a more global manner.
What role can Developmental Optometry play in treating these kids before parents decide to medicate their children?
For one, it’s important for parents to recognize that AD/HD to the extent it exists, is a pervasive disorder. By that I mean that if your child only shows issues with attention when attempting visual learning, it’s usually not an attention deficit, but a vision problem. This is where developmental optometry can make a huge and decided difference in the lives of the children we see. Many times I have been able to treat a child with vision therapy who has a “visual attention deficit” caused by a diagnosable visual problem. This can save a child from unnecessary pharmaceutical treatment.
During the last COVD Annual Meeting you presented an educational piece on sports related concussions and the ever advancing methods for diagnosing and treating such injuries. On a global scale, what contributions do you feel Developmental Optometry can make in this area?
I find that the visual system is often significantly affected after concussion, and even more so in post-concussion syndrome. We are the only profession that understands how visual deficits can affect an individual even if there is no physical evidence of disease or damage. Developmental optometry is in perfect position to help these patients through the type of visual analysis we’ve been performing for many years.
On a more focused scale, how has your practice been involved in treating sports related concussions?
In the past 5 years we’ve treated more than 100 individuals who have had sports related concussions ranging from grade schoolers to professional athletes, and many more children and adults who’ve had concussions from non-sports events. We’ve been involved in both research and treatment of visual deficits occurring post concussion.
Often times they are the same types of visual problems that we’ve been treated for years, but there can be some differences. For example, there is a much greater incidence of visual-vestibular problems post concussion than in non-concussed patients. Often we have to tailor our treatment to include these differences both in the lenses we prescribe and to the vision therapy activities we perform.
Pictured: Noah Tannen, Rachael Tannen, and Dr Tannen’s wife, Sandi
Do the examination or treatment protocols vary when treating someone with sports related concussion versus someone who may suffered a concussion secondary to an automobile accident or a fall?
Not really. The brain doesn’t know how it was concussed. The biggest difference is the patient education we need to give to make certain that a student-athlete is not placed back in a contact sport before the proper brain healing has taken place. The biggest problem with sports related concussions is that we often see multiple concussions, which makes the brain that much more susceptible to further concussions.
How did you become involved with the VisionHelp Group and how important is its mission to you personally?
I was asked to join back in 1997. Back then it was primarily a practice management group conceived to allow OD’s who had successful vision therapy practices network with like OD’s.
Over the years our mission has changed significantly. Now we are primarily a developmental optometry educational organization, dedicated to helping patients, parents, optometrists, and other professionals to understand the incredible difference developmental optometry can make in lives of people. I believe that our mission is vital, and I am fortunate to work with this group of dedicated optometrists who have come to be some of my closest friends.
On a personal note, my goal with these interviews has been to showcase the incredible stories in and around Developmental Optometry, and with every passing week, these seem to gain in popularity. As a doctor, business owner, and long time follower of this blog, why do you think the interest continues to grow?
I truly think you’ve done a wonderful job in showcasing developmental optometrists, vision therapists, and patients, allowing all of us to tell the story of developmental optometry. For that, I personally thank you, and hope that you continue to keep up the fine work that you do.
Pictured: Dr. Barry Tannen and his son, Noah
Some Closing Thoughts – A great thanks to Dr. Barry Tannen for this interview. Dr. Tannen shared with me that his son, Noah, is following in his father’s footsteps and is a second year optometry student at SUNY. This came with little surprise as Dr. Tannen’s passion for helping others and positive attitude towards his fellow man makes him a fantastic role model for anyone to follow! He truly is a class act. Please join me in wishing Dr. Barry Tannen, his wife Sandi, and his children Rachael and Noah, the absolute best! 🙂