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A Pipeline for Black Optometry Students

Dr. Essence Johnson of the Black EyeCare Perspective reviews steps to bring in more people of color to the profession

Pipeline: a buzzword in the past several years when it comes to streamlining both tasks and people to positions of advancement. For Essence Johnson, OD, her mission has been to build the pipeline for Black students to the profession of optometry. “When we talk about creating the pipeline for specifically Black students, we are looking at their complete journey, from the time they’re introduced to optometry to the time it takes to turn that into something tangible,” she says.

Dr. Johnson serves as the chief visionary officer for the Black EyeCare Perspective (BEP), an organization “committed to facilitating open and authentic dialogue surrounding implicit bias, organizational structure, and policies which lead to a lack of diversity and exclusion in eyecare,” according to its mission statement. Since its incorporation in August of 2020, BEP’s Pre Optometry Club leaders have approached historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to encourage and inspire students who are undecided in their pursuit of the medical field and help them apply for optometry school. “It’s about being intentional and strategic,” says Dr. Johnson.

REPRESENTATION MATTERS

While the current focus is college-aged students, Dr. Johnson and her colleagues and founders of the BEP, Darryl Glover, OD, and Adam Ramsey, OD, hope eventually to go to younger students, from daycares to high schools. “We want to get them exposed to even knowing what the eye care industry is,” she says. She also notes the importance of representation within the profession and medical field as a whole. “So many people tell me they’ve never met a black optometrist before, and before I went to school, I was like that. Now I have a whole community,” she says.

Currently, the BEP is focusing on both quantity and quality of students, as Dr. Johnson describes it. When it comes to quantity, step one is recruitment. In some ways, the pandemic forcing everything into the virtual realm has been a blessing, since it makes the recruitment events accessible to a wider audience. Dr. Johnson has seen a tremendous increase in her own social media and LinkedIn engagement.

THE YOUTH, THE FUTURE

But how do you sell optometry to students who have little experience with the profession? Dr. Johnson notes that frequently ODs will credit their path to optometry through their own experience in the exam chair or knowing someone who was an OD. It’s important as well to put optometry on par with other medical professions.

Dr. Johnson says that there are a few bread-and-butter advantages the leaders can emphasize to their prospective students: work/life balance, the ability to be a parent and practitioner, the growing numbers of women in STEM—to name a few. What she has found, though, is that many of her prospective students are not as moved by the work/life balance and parenthood reasons. “I think some of that is just where they are in their life,” she says. More appealing to these youth is the idea that optometry is a springboard for a great career and impact. “In the shift of the world and the shift of social media, they see the presence and versatility we have in our profession,” she says. “There is so much more you can do as an optometrist. They want to know what they can do… how this can be a springboard to other things.”

THE PRECIPICE OF A NEW WORLD

The year 2020—with the growth in attention for racial equality plus the pandemic—has reinforced a discrepancy in quality of and access to health care. “The pandemic has revealed the way Black people receive care,” she says. “We’re seeing so many stories coming out. Even being a Black doctor is not enough to get treatment,” she says, noting a late December New York Times story on Susan Moore, MD, who complained of her treatment for COVID and died after being released from a hospital from complications of the disease.

“When we talk diversity and biases, it’s not limited to gender and race. We see so many of how our opinions are formed in school,” she says. These include discussion about preferred models of optometric practice, for example. “We have a very fragmented profession. On many levels we have to work more collaboratively and cooperatively.”

Dr. Johnson says that all ODs and their staff can help forward the discussion. She takes a page from the NBA playbook as an example. “What is the NBA doing that the eye care industry isn’t doing? We can all help create more of these opportunities in our own profession to do more intentional, targeted recruiting,” she says. “Show students the value of a career in optometry goes both ways. We can be a value to them; they can be a value to our profession.”

Read more about Dr. Johnson.

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