Health Care

UNCP to establish a Doctor of Optometry program

By Staff Report, posted 3 weeks ago
Image provided by UNCP

The University of North Carolina Pembroke will soon be home to the state’s only public doctoral program in optometry––chartering a new path for comprehensive primary care for eye and visual health in North Carolina and surrounding states.

UNCP received unanimous approval Thursday, May 23, from the UNC System Board of Governors to establish a Doctor of Optometry program and, in doing so, will be the only public university in North Carolina to grant the specialized four-year degree. The new program will be one of 24 nationwide and will help fill a significant void in the southeastern part of the country. 

UNCP began exploring the addition of optometry two decades ago under the leadership of then-Senator David Weinstein and UNCP Chancellor Allen Meadors.

That legislative effort in 2004 was part of an evolving mission for UNC Pembroke to meet healthcare workforce needs in southeastern North Carolina, which has continued to the present, said Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings, M.D.

“I’m grateful to our countless supporters who recognize the critical need for comprehensive eye care in our state—particularly in rural areas—and who value the significant role UNCP is playing and will play in ensuring better health outcomes for our communities,” Cummings said in a press release. “This addition to our degree offerings reflects our university’s continuing commitment to addressing the evolving healthcare needs of our region and beyond.”

The university will immediately start the process to achieve national accreditation and plans to welcome its first class in the fall of 2027. Over time, graduates will help address the demand for skilled professionals to practice in rural communities, which often have limited access to needed eye care. Currently, there are 12 counties in North Carolina without a single optometrist.

Chancellor Cummings, a former cardiothoracic surgeon, said increasing the number of clinical optometrists providing quality care in North Carolina is a key focus for the new program.

“UNCP’s graduates will be well-prepared to meet the rigorous challenges of modern practice,” Cummings said in a press release. “We are committed to teaching the art of critical thinking in applied evidence-based medicine.”

In 2018, UNCP began a major push toward a health sciences expansion with the establishment of the university’s College of Health Sciences after a Sheps Center study concluded that programs such as nurse practitioner, occupational therapy, optometry, nutrition and dietetics could improve the supply of health professionals in the region and provide access to well-paying healthcare jobs. The study was repeated in 2023, leading state legislators to budget $20 million for start-up costs associated with new healthcare programs at the university. About $12 million of that funding will support the optometry program.

The state also has earmarked $91 million for the construction of a future health professions building on the UNCP campus. Optometry will be the anchor program in the new facility providing comprehensive educational experiences with the latest diagnostic and therapeutic technology.

The university plans to break ground for the building next year.

“The optometry program will have an exponential impact not only on UNC Pembroke, but on southeastern North Carolina and the state as a whole,” Senator Danny Britt said in a press release. “By adding an in-demand doctoral program that is not available at any of the other UNC System schools, UNCP is elevating its profile and helping to positively impact the healthcare landscape of southeastern North Carolina. This is a historic moment for the university, optometry, other health science career fields and especially for rural North Carolina.”

By 2025, most North Carolina residents will be over 65. The overall demand for medical eye care services is expected to rise due to the aging population. Many optometric clinicians and experts theorize that demand for medical eye care will grow by over 25 percent by 2030.

Along with the doctoral program, UNCP plans to establish a community clinic for uninsured and low-income patients that will provide students with hands-on patient experience under the supervision of experienced clinical faculty.  

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