Ophthalmic Medical Technology Program Celebrates 20th Anniversary

By Yavonda Chase

“I think it is pretty fitting that a program dedicated to providing quality optical care celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2020,” said Susan Long, Ed.D., dean of the College of Health Professions.

A collaboration between the college and the UAMS Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the program is the only accredited one in the country in which students graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree, and the only program integrated into a major eye clinic.

John Shock, M.D., founding director of the Jones Eye Institute, and Chris Westfall, M.D., Shock’s successor as director who is now dean of the College of Medicine, were instrumental in founding the program, said Alicia Baird, B.S., CO, COMT, program director and chair of the Department of Ophthalmic Medical Technologies.

“To that point, ophthalmologists largely trained their staff themselves because there weren’t really any programs that offered education in this area,” said Baird. “Shock and Westfall wanted UAMS to develop a program that would train at the highest level – the technologist.”

Westfall said it was “truly a joint effort” between Jones Eye Institute and the College of Health Professions. He credited then-Dean Ronald Winters, Ph.D., and Pat Monoson, Ph.D., the college’s then-associate dean for academic affairs, for their role in establishing the program within the college.

“Many may not realize that Dr. Winters and Dr. Shock were next-door neighbors before the OMT program came to fruition,” said Westfall. “I can almost picture these two leaders, now emeritus professors, talking over the fence about the possibilities and great potential for the future OMT program.”

Ophthalmic medical technologists assist ophthalmologists with most aspects of a patient’s eye care, including assessment and treatment of eye disorders. OMTs carry out a lot of the prescreening and diagnostic testing that is done during an eye exam.

Since accepting its first class in 2000, the OMT program has graduated 60 students, said Baird, a number that includes her (Class of 2010) and previous program director Suzanne Hansen, M.Ed., COMT, who was in the program’s second class of students.

“Because we are such a small profession and one of only three accredited ophthalmic medical technologist programs in the United States training at the advanced level, it makes sense our graduates end up being our faculty,” said Baird. “I was honored when I was selected to succeed Hansen in 2017.”

In all, there are 34 accredited ophthalmic personnel training programs in the country, most of which offer training at the assistant (entry) and technician (intermediate) levels.

Currently, there are five students in the program. Those students receive one-on-one, personalized time with the optometrists and ophthalmologists at Jones Eye Institute, Baird said.

“The investment by UAMS physicians into our students is something special,” she said. “I know those relationships are invaluable and will benefit our students throughout their careers. When I talk about this program to future students that is one of the biggest things I highlight because it is so unique.”

Students also start clinical rotations in their second week of the program.

“We believe in hitting the ground running,” Baird said, adding that the first clinical experiences are largely observational. “But those early clinicals are really what hook our students. They see exactly how they’re going to be able to help people.”

While the program is the smallest in the College of Health Professions, it has an outsized reputation.

“We may be small, but we are mighty,” Baird said. “Our students are highly recruited and usually have jobs before they graduate. The last few classes have had a 100% pass rate their first time to take the national certification test administered by the Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology. I’m so proud of our amazing students.”