Industry and education collaborate to increase Black representation in eye care.
Johnson & Johnson Vision (JJV) has signed the 13% Promise, an initiative to increase Black representation in eye care companies, colleges of optometry, and optometry boards.1 The company held a press conference panel presentation to announce the news and share information about the 13% Promise.
Joining the panel presentation were:
• Darryl Glover, OD, cofounder of Black EyeCare Perspective (BECP)
• Essence Johnson, OD, FAAO, chief visionary officer of BECP
• Howard Purcell, OD, FAAO, president and CEO of New England College of Optometry (NECO)
• Charissa Lee, OD, FAAO, head of North American professional affairs at JJV
• Thomas Swinnen, president, North America, at JJV
Glover started the discussion by explaining the genesis of the 13% Promise.
“Imagine entering a profession where you are the only person in your race or ethnicity in your program, where none of your professors look like you, where it’s rare to see industry leaders that look like you or executives that look like you, and where it’s rare to see yourself at a conference or an event. This is the reality for African Americans,” he said.
Glover, along with Adam Ramsey, OD, created BECP to cultivate and foster lifelong relationships between African Americans and the eye care industry.
“At the time we started this journey, only 1.8% of practicing optometrist were Black, and only 3% of incoming optometry students each year were Black. And it was a flatline for 15 years,” he said.
They created the 13% Promise to hold the profession accountable. The U.S. population is about 13% African American, which is greater than current representation in optometry:1
• 3.2% of students in optometry school are African Americans
• 1.8% of practicing optometrist are African Americans
• 3.8% of faculty in colleges of optometry are African Americans
BECP leadership created a pipeline to recruit, develop, and create opportunities for Black optometrists via education in 4 segments: K-12 students, undergraduate students, university students, optometry school students, and practicing ODs.
“We focus on creating awareness at in-person events, going to schools, and getting out in the community with screenings and education on the importance of eye care,” Glover said. “Black students need to see us.”
BECP created a virtual pre-optometry club for undergraduate students to prepare them for optometry school and become the best candidates for admission. Plus, the group plans to launch a leadership program for optometry students.
The nonprofit organization plans to facilitate programs to help practicing ODs transition into the workplace, regardless of setting, and find key opinion leader opportunities.
“We will create a strong pipeline for these optometrists to be able to get through, but most importantly, to have the awareness at an early age, have a strong background to get into optometry school, produce that inclusive environment while they are in optometry school, and help transition when they get out,” said Glover.
He outlined the 4 Cs of making the 13% Promise:
• Commitment: Making a pledge and signing the 13% Promise proclamation
• Check-in: Checking in throughout the year to assess progress, identify challenges, and collaborate to improve inclusivity
• Courageous conversations: Joining a conversation from all involved to review on individual goals and advance collectively toward increased representation
• Cross collaboration: Unite efforts and unify messaging to create scalable and sustainable solutions for increased representation
“I am asking you to join the 13% Promise,” he said. “We have to do this together. This goes for academia, industry, any entity out there—optometrist, student—we can do this together, but we can’t do it alone.”
By the numbers
Johnson provided a snapshot of inequities and opportunities to improve representation.
U.S. population distribution is projected to shift by 2050,2 she said.
“These trends will include a decrease in the white population (60% to 50%) and an increase in the Hispanic and Latinx population (18% to nearly 30%),” she said. “The shift will occur the fastest in the age 18 and under population. Although the shift is occuring in the U.S. population as a whole, we are not seeing the same in health care, and that includes optometry.”
In optometry, current nonminority groups make up a majority of optometry program applicants, students graduating from optometry schools, and practicing optometrists. As noted above, the opposite is true for minority groups, especially Black and African American and Hispanic and Latinx.3
“Over this last year, many colleagues have been appointed to advisory boards in the eye care industry, stepping into new leadership roles, and changing their modes of practice,” Johnson said. “These are phenomenal achievements. But it is apparent that we need more minority representation to enter earlier into this pipeline approach.”
The Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry provides a breakdown of future optometrists who are applying to optometry programs. Again, nonminority groups comprise a smaller portion of students identifying as Black or African American—only 4.1%—signifying that we need more minority students to pursue optometry.4
Purcell said that the persistence of racial inequalities in health care is real, and the profession needs to diversify.
“But we know it is more important than that,” he says. “It is about outcomes and trust—we know that when your doctor looks like you, there is greater trust, and we have better outcomes. It has to start with diversifying the student body. We cannot just create optometrists—they start in the schools and colleges. If we don’t make a concerted effort in the schools to make sure we are diversifying this profession, it will never happen.”
NECO is the first school or college of optometry to join the 13% Promise. The institution has established scholarships to support the efforts to attract diverse applicants.
The college increased the diversity of applicants in 2021 over the prior year—it received an 80% increase in applications of students who identify as Black or African American.
“As we began to demonstrate this commitment, we saw a halo effect of almost a 40% increase in Hispanic and Latinx applications,” Purcell said. “These are the two areas primarily that we are underrepresented in optometry. Commensurate with this, we saw the highest grade point average the New England College of Optometry has had overall in the past 10 to 15 years. It's clear these efforts work. Nobody expects it to change overnight. But we can show those efforts gradually over time.”
JJV’s credo has represented the company’s values for almost 80 years, and Swinnen said that joining the 13% Promise is a natural fit.
“The credo talks about our responsibility to doctors, nurses, and patients,” he said. “It also speaks about the duty that we have toward the communities in which we live and work. A crucial way to help people be healthier is by supporting better access and care. Being true to our credo means walking the talk. We believe that to help people see better, connect better, and live better means addressing access to eye health care. A key step to do that is ensuring equity and inclusion for all. Our commitment towards the 13% promise is a critical step toward that goal.”
Standing together with unity, solidarity, and decisive action can change the trajectory of eye health, Lee said.
JJV has committed to several action items designed to change this trajectory:
• Supporting sponsorships and new programs to improve the representation of people of color within optometry
• Bringing more diversity and equity into the eye care industry
• Creating more culturally relevant information and eye health education
“Today we make this 13% Promise which calls for equity and accountability for black representation and eye care,” she said. “We are dedicated to this cause and will continue to have courageous conversations to ensure diversity across eye care. We strongly encourage other eye care leaders to join us in this pledge because every one of us can make a difference 1% of the time, but we can do more together.”
1. Black EyeCare Persepctive. The 13% promise. Accessed September 15, 2021. https://blackeyecareperspective.com/the-13-promise
2. University of California, Davis. Diversity, equity & inclusion. Updated June 22, 2020. Accessed September 15, 2021. https://diversity.ucdavis.edu/data
3. Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry. OptomCAS applicant data report – a national snapshot. 2019-2020. Accessed September 15, 2021.https://www.optomcas.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/OptomCAS-Applicant-Data-Report-2019-2020.pdf
4. Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry. Annual student data report. May 2021. Accessed September 15, 2021. https://optometriceducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/ASCO-Student-Data-Report-2020-21.pdf