Many counties in North Carolina are far behind the national average in the number of optometrists per capita. Wingate University is planning to help fill the void.

Bob Supernaw

Dr. Robert Supernaw

Wingate University has announced its intention to pursue the first school of optometry in the region. Wingate made the decision after a thorough study and significant consultation with multiple professional optometric organizations.

As part of the school of optometry, the University plans to establish a free community eye-care clinic, which would provide care to an underserved population in rural Eastern Union County.

President Rhett Brown received a strong recommendation from Wingate’s consultant, Dr. Melvin Shipp, dean emeritus of the Ohio State University School of Optometry.

“I felt the appropriate support was there, both within the institution and within the profession in the state,” Shipp says. “I felt that Wingate had the support structures that would allow for a successful program.”

Dr. Robert Supernaw, Wingate’s vice provost for health sciences, has spent more than a year researching the feasibility of Wingate’s establishing a school of optometry. Based on his due diligence, he says, it is clear that there is a great need in North Carolina for an optometry school.

Supernaw is an experienced hand when it comes to starting health-science programs. In 2002, he was hired to start the Wingate University School of Pharmacy (WUSOP), and it has been a huge success, recording national-licensing-exam scores above the national average for 10 straight years and becoming one of the first schools in the nation to gain the maximum eight-year accreditation status.

Since WUSOP was established in 2003, Wingate has added the Levine College of Health Sciences, which in addition to pharmacy includes physician assistant studies, physical therapy and nursing programs and is in the process of adding occupational therapy.

Optometry deserts

Nationwide, there are approximately 1.3 doctors of optometry (ODs) per 10,000 head of population. In North Carolina, that figure is just 1.1, and many counties in eastern North Carolina have well below the national average – or no optometrists at all.

“Optometrists have sort of congregated in urban areas,” Supernaw says. “We thought that we could correct that.”

There are only 22 schools of optometry in the nation, and none in a region that encompasses the states of West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Wingate’s school of optometry will provide a pipeline of ODs to the region to help fill the provider gap.

A community clinic providing care for indigent people in Union and surrounding counties would be a key component of the Wingate University School of Optometry. In addition to vision health, optometry screenings contribute to the diagnosis of diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular compromise. Early detection of such chronic illnesses would reduce related healthcare costs significantly for the citizens of North Carolina.

For these reasons, a growing number of members of the North Carolina General Assembly support the University’s commitment to optometric education.

Overall, the time is right for Wingate University to provide North Carolina with its own school of optometry.

“At the end of the day, I felt like they had the wherewithal to be successful if they made the decision to start an optometry school,” Shipp says.

Find out more about Wingate’s current graduate programs.

Oct. 9, 2017