(L to R) Johnson & Johnson's Vision's Dr. Charissa Lee with Dr. Kelly Nichols of ASCO and Thomas Swinnen, Johnson & Johnson Vision at the partnership announcement Friday at the SECO meeting in New Orleans. 
ROCKVILLE, Md.—The Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO) and Johnson & Johnson Vision announced the start of a unique partnership with an unprecedented sponsorship to address the need for greater diversity in optometry. “ASCO is excited to be teaming up with Johnson & Johnson Vision in our efforts to address the diversity issues in optometry today,” said Dr. Kelly Nichols, ASCO president. “We are beyond appreciative of this partnership and corresponding sponsorship, which is the largest in ASCO’s history.

“Johnson & Johnson Vision shares and re-affirms ASCO’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, which we all feel can have long-lasting impact on our profession,” said Dr. Nichols. “Our goal is to educate future doctors of optometry that reflect the populations that we serve. Without greater diversity in schools and colleges of optometry, the profession will be hard-pressed to achieve substantial change. With this sponsorship, ASCO is stronger and better resourced to address these goals through expanding ASCO’s Eye on Diversity initiative.”

“I feel very privileged standing here next to my partners in working on something that’s really close to our heart,” Johnson & Johnson Vision, North America president Thomas Swinnen said at the partnership announcement Friday at the SECO 2022 meeting in New Orleans.

“This is about making a difference to patients and to doctors and whoever needs health care, and specifically eye health. And it’s a privilege and I am really proud that we are able to do this.” He also noted that he believes the partnership with ASCO is “an opportunity to show how we can inspire people… by creating those opportunities for them to make a difference. And eye health is a high unmet need.

“The partnership with ASCO is one of the many ways Johnson & Johnson Vision is continuing to work collaboratively to create a more equitable and inclusive future for aspiring optometrists and the patients we all serve. We have a long-standing and deeply rooted commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion—and we look forward to a future where there are more quality and equitable eyecare experiences and healthier outcomes for all,” Swinnen said.

This new level of support and unprecedented sponsorship from Johnson & Johnson Vision will allow ASCO to augment its initiatives focused on diversifying optometry’s student body and to address the challenges associated with diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in optometric education. ASCO will use this sponsorship to support programs such as efforts to educate an increasing number of diverse undergraduates about the opportunities offered by a career in optometry through ASCO’s Optometry Gives Me Life campaign; cultural competency training programs, videos, and other resources for students, faculty and practitioners; and opportunities for engagement through programs such as a unique speaker series.

From 2016 to 2019, ASCO’s member schools and colleges faced a decline in the number and diversity of applicants interested in pursuing a career in optometry. For years, the number of applicants to optometry schools and colleges from Black backgrounds hovered from 100 to 115 applicants or 4 percent to 4.6 percent of total applicants, and those from Hispanic backgrounds ranged from 60 to 74 applicants or 2.4 percent to 2.8 percent of total applicants.

During this time, the number of Black students enrolled in all 4 years of optometry school ranged from 164 to 209 or 2.7 percent to 3.1 percent of total students, and the number of Hispanic students ranged from 249 to 292 or 4.5 percent of total students. From 2016 to 2017, ASCO saw the number of Hispanic applicants rise to 261, but subsequent numbers again plateaued.

ASCO’s directors, members, and staff recognize that the schools and colleges of optometry are the place to start in order to expand the diversity of voices and perspectives serving the increasingly diverse patient population in North America. A more racially and ethnically diverse applicant pool can lead to greater diversity in the student body, followed by more diversity among faculty and practitioners who are enabled to offer more culturally-competent and culturally-responsive patient care.

Many studies have shown that patient outcomes are better when the provider population is more diverse, so attracting students from underrepresented backgrounds to a career in optometry supports the long-term capability of the profession to serve a population with increasing eye and vision care needs. As the percentage of racial and ethnic underrepresented groups in the general population grows, it becomes increasingly important that the members from those racial and ethnic groups recognize optometry as an attractive and vital career choice open to them.

ASCO’s strategic plan addresses challenges to diversity in optometric education, and identifies three main goals:

  • Build awareness of the profession of optometry as a highly valued and rewarding career choice among prospective students and their influencers, namely, their parents and career advisors.

  • Provide resources, support, and encouragement to faculty and administrators in building an inclusive organizational culture that welcomes diverse students who will feel like they belong in both their educational institutions and in the field of optometry.

  • Support culturally competent training that enables students to provide top quality care to an increasingly diverse population of patients.
ASCO’s Eye on Diversity initiative, supported by this new sponsorship from Johnson & Johnson Vision, will address all three goals.

In March 2019, the ASCO board of directors undertook the association’s largest initiative ever by launching its public awareness campaign, Optometry Gives Me Life, to combat the decline in the number and diversity of the optometry applicant pool by raising awareness about what a career in optometry offers to college-aged students majoring in STEM fields, especially those from Black and Hispanic backgrounds.

“This campaign aims to diversify the profile of the optometry profession, with a diverse and qualified applicant pool that is competitive with other health professions for our nation’s best and brightest students from all backgrounds,” Dr. Nichols said.

“Metrics on the campaign from the past two full applicant cycles show promising early results, but there is still much work yet to do. We are so very grateful for this partnership with Johnson & Johnson Vision and for their support of this critically important work,” Dr. Nichols said.