UNC Pembroke was recently granted permission by the University of North Carolina System to move forward with a proposal to establish the state’s first school of optometry. If approved by the UNC System Board of Governors, the school would be the anchor program of UNCP’s health sciences building which the state has already earmarked $91 million for construction.
The UNCP Board of Trustees endorsed the plan during its meeting last week.
The addition of an optometry school at UNCP would help bolster the number of skilled professionals practicing in rural communities where the greatest optometric needs exist. Currently, there are 12 counties in North Carolina without practicing optometrists and the number across the state continues to decline. There are only 24 optometry schools in the United States and none in North Carolina.
UNCP –– led by the efforts of former Sen. David Weinstein –– began exploring the creation of an optometry school in the late 1990s.
In 2018, the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at UNC published a report identifying the region’s workforce needs in healthcare and which ones UNCP was best positioned to address. The study outlined several priorities, including the development of a College of Health Sciences, which was established that same year. Additional recommendations included adding programs in phases such as the Doctor of Nursing Practice and a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy––both of which will enroll students in 2024.
The Sheps Center concluded that an optometry school, along with other selected programs, would provide vital services to the medically underserved, rural region with an aging population, high rates of hypertension, diabetes and other risk factors and health disparities.