The Opening of New Optometry Schools and What It Means For Optometry

By: Matthew Geller | Founder & Senior Editor

Everyone in the optometric profession- ODs and students alike – is anxious to know how the opening of new optometry schools will affect our future. With a spectrum of opinions on the issue, some are confident that the profession will benefit from more schools, while others believe new schools will lead to an over-saturated job market. This is an important issue for all of us; especially new students who want to know what demand for optometrists will be after graduation.

I had an opportunity to talk with AOA President Dori Carlson, O.D., ASCO President-Elect David Heath, O.D., and Kent Daum, O.D., vice dean at the School of Optometry in the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. I contacted all three individuals to find out more on the issue and to address some concerns of readers. What made me a bit more optimistic about the issue was learning about the Workforce Initiative, a study commissioned by the AOA and ASCO. The study, set to be completed in the first quarter of 2013, will determine the sufficiency of the current and future supply of optometrists. Dr. Carlson felt very strongly about the issue. “Optometry is long overdue for a workforce study that will give us a true reflection of the supply and demand for eye care in the U.S. I’m anxious to see the results,” she told in a recent interview.

But first, some background!

The Newest Operating Optometry Schools

In recent years, three new optometry programs have received pre-accreditation status, a preliminary approval from the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE). The new schools currently hosting classes are:

Midwestern University Arizona College of Optometry – Arizona
University of the Incarnate Word Rosenberg School of Optometry – Texas
Western University of Health Sciences College of Optometry – California

Optometry Schools Set to Open

The Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) –Worcester, Mass.

I spoke with Dr. Daum at MCPHS, who said: “The new school of optometry is to be located in Worcester, Massachusetts. Other doctoral programs exist on the same campus (pharmacy, physical therapy, as well as a program in physician assistant studies). We find it exciting to have an optometry program where students in the optometry program work side by side with students in the other health professions, sharing labs, lectures and other professional endeavors, which will help build future working relationships with other practitioners. We are committed to a student-centered program that emphasizes clinical experience and competency.”

Regarding the workforce study, Dr. Daum indicated: “We have submitted a self-study for accreditation and are awaiting the outcome. We hope to hear before the first of November. If granted accreditation, we plan to admit students and recruiting faculty to begin the program in the fall of 2012.”

The Appalachian College of Optometry – Buchanan County, Virginia

The Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA) approved a $5.6-million loan last December for the development of this new optometry school, which starts classes in August 2013. The main argument for the creation of this school was job creation in Buchanan County, a county that was the poorest in Virginia and one of the 100 poorest in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “Buchanan County has developed a very unique economic development strategy that is centered, in part, around the development of private graduate schools in the county as a means of creating direct and indirect jobs and other economic impacts,” said VCEDA Executive Director Jonathan Belcher.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

After hearing these arguments, many people jump straight to the thought of oversaturation and want to know how they can stop these schools from opening and flooding the job market with graduates.

A lot of individuals wonder why the AOA doesn’t step up to the plate and try to shut these schools down. If the AOA or any other organization made a direct attempt to intervene, they would likely be sued and subsequently waste hard-earned money on complex anti-trust legal battles.

In addition, one must consider that education is a business, and you can’t just stop a school from opening because you think it’s not a good idea– just like you can’t stop a Starbucks from opening because you think too many people in your town are already drinking coffee.

If any organization or group of individuals wanted to intervene in these situations, the argument would probably end up in court where the parties would present their facts and figures. The problem is that organizations like the AOA don’t have the most powerful evidence at hand to sway a court’s decision at the current time. Clearly these new optometry schools have job creation projections to back up their arguments, but what would the counter-argument be? Optometry does have two studies that give some support to the oversupply argument, but many believe that they are outdated. The RAND study is 16 years old, and the ABT study is nearly 12 years old. Although these studies have future projections, no one could have predicted today’s economic and geo-political state of affairs; the bottom line is that another study would be essential.

Contrary to the oversaturation argument, many doctors believe that the demand for eye care services will grow as baby boomers age. These OD’s also believe the epidemic increase of diabetes in the United States will boost demand for these services, and many professionals in other health care fields share their opinion. These doctors are right on point with their assessment considering that on Sept. 13, 2011, the World Health Organization stated an estimated 366 million people worldwide suffer from diabetes, and the global epidemic is getting worse. In addition, some other common arguments that optometry is not becoming oversaturated are: the rising prevalence of disease, baby boomers retiring, the increasing prevalence of part-time female optometrists, the increasing awareness among the general public for primary eye care, and the awareness of the public of fields such as vision therapy.

This point of view can be explained with a simple ocular analogy. When diagnosing glaucoma, one must consider both aqueous production and its pathway through the eye and aqueous outflow as a cause for high intraocular pressure. Without consideration for these factors, a diagnosis of glaucoma is hard to reach. The same thing applies to our profession – one must consider the production of new optometrists and patients, the path they take through the health care system and also the number of optometrists and patients leaving the field before a diagnosis of oversaturation is reached.

The AOA, in cooperation with ASCO, and its members have commissioned the Lewin Group, a 40-year-strong national health care and human services consulting firm, to assist in the collection and initial analysis of the Workforce Initiative data. The study, set to be completed in the first quarter of 2013, will determine the sufficiency of the current and future supply of optometrists. The initiative will create an extensive database containing information from optometrists and ophthalmologists, painting an accurate picture of the number of eye care providers in the United States. The initiative will also create the ability to forecast the supply and demand for eye and vision care in the future and provide knowledge for all parties to better serve patients as the profession changes throughout the years.

I also spoke with Dr. Heath who said, “the general concept of provider saturation is largely a red herring and the answer will always be “yes” and “no.” There are areas of our country in which the supply of providers is more than ample, and there are areas with significant shortages. Shortage areas are often in rural America and in many lower socioeconomic communities of our largest cities. Case in point – Dr. Mort Soroka O.D., recently published a workforce study in the Journal of Community Health on the state of New York that reveals a mal distribution of providers. Even in New York, Dr. Soroka found 16 counties upstate with no ophthalmologists and three without either ophthalmologists or optometrists.”

In our conversation, Dr. Heath continued, “The workforce study being commissioned by the AOA and ASCO is less likely to reveal exactly how many optometrists/ophthalmologists are needed, but is very likely to give us guidance on where we are needed. With optometry’s ascent as a profession, and the expansion of academic programs, it is true we will have more graduates in the years ahead. Our obligation in optometric education is to assure the quality of care for the public by establishing and maintaining high standards for admission and high expectations for the quality of the programs offered and accredited. These are obligations to be shared by the schools and colleges of optometry (ASCO), the profession (AOA), and the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE). It will also be increasingly incumbent upon all our educational programs to provide students with the knowledge and the mentoring needed to guide them to look to those areas of the country in which our services are needed the most.”

New schools remain a touchy subject, and every student and OD should keep their fingers on the pulse of this issue. The bottom line is that students and ODs should make their voices heard, no matter what their opinion happens to be. Step up to the plate and be a leader – don’t just hope that other people will work everything out for you!

And My Opinion?
I think optometry students need to care more about their profession in general. Without dedicated students we will never be able to find effective solutions to any of the issues that affect our field, whether it’s oversupply or legal battles. My goal is for to show optometry’s true colors in a positive way because I believe that over a long period of time this Web site will bring more educated and competitive applicants, smarter clinicians, and a change in optometry’s demographics – from those who punch the clock, to those who lead this profession to the next level.

By: Matthew Geller | Founder & Senior Editor

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