New Kentucky College of Optometry in Pikeville will help fill healthcare gap in Appalachia

By Gary Wollenhaupt

An inaugural class of 65 students began classes in fall 2016 at the Kentucky College of Optometry at the University of Pikeville. It is the only optometry school in Kentucky and one of 22 in the U.S.
An inaugural class of 65 students began classes in fall 2016 at the Kentucky College of Optometry at the University of Pikeville. It is the only optometry school in Kentucky and one of 22 in the U.S.

There’s a vision for better healthcare and education taking root at the new Kentucky College of Optometry at the University of Pikeville, the first and only optometry school in the commonwealth.

With an inaugural class of 65 students for the 2016-2017 academic year, the newest college at UPike is one of 22 optometry schools in the nation, and the only one in several surrounding states.

The college was launched to improve healthcare in Eastern Kentucky and expand the professional healthcare educational opportunities at UPike. It will primarily serve Eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia.

The optometry school was funded through a $40 million federal loan for the building and a $7.4 million federal grant to the university to purchase equipment, instructional supplies and other materials.

Within the first three years of the award, the college is expected to graduate 60 optometrists, provide care to 12,000 patients and bring $26 million in direct economic impact to the regional economy.

The desire to improve healthcare access in the region was one of the big drivers behind establishing the new college, according to UPike President Burton Webb.

“This part of the world in Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia has the highest rate of preventable blindness in the nation, and Owlsey County, which is just a couple of counties over, has the highest rate of preventable blindness in the country,” Webb said. “So we felt like it was a wonderful opportunity to expand on our already well-established tradition of providing rural healthcare and expand that into optometry.”

UPike launched an osteopathic medical school in 1997 to help address a regional doctor shortage.

Optometrists are primary care providers who examine, diagnose, treat and manage diseases and disorders of the visual system, the eye and related structures as well as diagnose related healthcare conditions.

Nationwide, the need for optometrists is expected to grow faster than the average career field, by 33 percent through 2020, adding more than 11,000 new positions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Currently, there are 820 licensed optometrists in Kentucky, according to Connie Calvert, executive director of the Kentucky Board of Optometric Examiners, the state professional licensing body. The number of incoming optometrists closely matches the number of retiring and relocating doctors as well, although the total number of licensed optometrists has climbed from 627 about 20 years, ago, Calvert said.

The Kentucky Optometric Association reports only 106 of the state’s 120 counties have a practicing optometrist, and some counties that do have an optometrist can’t satisfy the demand for care. About two-thirds of the state’s counties do not have an ophthalmologist, which is a medical or osteopathic doctor who specializes in eye care and can perform eye surgeries, so some patients have had to travel long distances for eye-health care.

Looking beyond vision care

In addition to providing eye and vision care, optometrists play a major role in patients’ overall health and well-being by detecting systemic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, which affect a much higher number of Kentuckians than the national average.

“In fact, many cases of undiagnosed diabetes are detected by optometrists,” said Max Downey, O.D. and president of the KOA. “This early detection is so important because it can help prevent all the other complications that can come from the diabetes, such as kidney and heart disease, amputation and blindness.”

One of the new school’s goals is to help the region shed its underserved status for eye care, as it did with healthcare after the Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine opened two decades ago, said founding dean Andrew Buzzelli, O.D. M.S., FAAO, a retired Air Force colonel and former assistant to the Air Force Surgeon General. He was dean at the Rosenberg School of Optometry at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, before coming to UPike.

Without a Kentucky school, optometry students have attended Indiana University, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Ohio State University, Illinois College of Optometry and other optometry schools across the country.

During a previous post at the IU School of Medicine, Webb saw the power of local students coming through the program and practicing in their home regions.

“We found that 75 percent of local physicians came through our program, and we want to translate that to Eastern Kentucky with physicians and optometrists for underserved counties,” Webb said.

In 2011, when the legislature expanded the profession’s scope of practice, Kentucky became one of three states – along with Louisiana and Oklahoma – that allows optometrists to perform glaucoma- and cataract-related surgeries and certain other eye-related surgeries in their offices. That means patients can get diagnosis, treatment and follow-up specialty care they need from one provider rather than being forced to travel to a larger city.

Kentucky residents benefit from primary care being available closer to where they live.

“They get the needed care sooner, and they save time and money by not having to travel to another office and paying for another doctor’s visit,” Downey said. “In addition, an earlier diagnosis can lead to better results for the patient.”

Of the three states that have an expanded scope of practice, only two – Kentucky and Oklahoma – have an optometry school. KYCO students will undergo an additional 88 hours of study to become authorized to perform those surgical procedures.

“Students here will be able to train in techniques available at only one other optometry school,” Buzzelli said. “It’s still a four-year degree, but the surgical training adds to the intensity of the program.”

The inaugural class of 2020 drew students from throughout Kentucky and as far away as California, some drawn by the expanded scope of practice. The first class had five more students than initially planned, and there were 10 applicants for every open seat, Buzzelli noted. So far, all the students completed the first semester, and 10 made the dean’s list.

The students have an undergraduate science background and must score well on the Optometry Aptitude Test to gain admission.

For their first year, the students started in former facilities of the College of Osteopathic Medicine and then switched to the new College of Optometry facilities, which opened in February. The college is housed in the $55 million Health Professions Education Building, a 103,000-s.f. facility that houses not only the optometry school but will provide technology and clinical training facilities for the school of nursing and other health professions programs.

As the students progress, the goal is to expand hands-on training to an optometry clinic on the UPike campus as well as eight other healthcare clinics in partnership with local healthcare providers to deliver optometry services in the region.

Community outreach was one of the main reasons Buzzelli took the open position at KYCO nearly three years ago.

“It’s an Advantage school, which means that we just don’t train optometrists, we provide care in these areas so that people are advantaged by that,” he said. “We’ll also work with local schools to attract students from the area who might not have thought they could become a doctor.”


Gary Wollenhaupt is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]

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