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Despite being uncommon, IU School of Optometry struggles with visibility

Optometry School 7 (1)

Students walk through the halls at the School of Optometry. The School of Optometry building is located at 800 Atwater Ave. Alex Deryn

Unlike most of IU, this building is not made of limestone.

Located a block south of Third Street at the corner of Atwater and South Woodlawn avenues, the IU School of Optometry is a long building made of solid concrete. A single column of windows rising up from the center and across the top forms a “T.” Class photos line the stairwells and walls inside.

The school is one of only 23 accredited optometry schools in the country. It graduates anywhere from 70 to 80 students a year, each of whom have experience in one of its two fully-functioning clinics, one located across the street next to Hillel and one in Indianapolis. 

Optometry education is split into two main groups. The first two years are spent in the classroom focused on basic sciences, and the last two are on the job in clinical services.

Junior Hailey Buster is working on her clinical hours at the Atwater clinic. A Texas native, she chose to leave the south for IU because Bloomington reminded her of Texas in the midwest.

“This was the first school I toured and after I cancelled all my other tours,” Buster said.

She said she likes the work-life balance optometry offers.

“I was interested in healthcare and optometry was more specific,” Buster said. “I could get to know it on a deeper level.”

As a third-year student, she has to spend 8 hours a week in the clinic. Buster hers on Wednesdays so she has time to study the rest of the week. 

Next year, she will visit four clinics, each for 12 weeks, before she graduates.

Neil Pence is the dean that manages these second two years of clinics. At most optometry schools, his job title would be Associate Dean of Clinical Services, however when he was hired he made sure he was called the Associate Dean of Clinical and Patient Care Services. 

“Patient care is one of the most important parts,” Pence said.

When someone visits an IU clinic, the “prescribing doctor,” or the main doctor, is an actual doctor of optometry. The students shadow and help the main doctor. 

IU’s clinic is comprehensive. It offers about 40 exam rooms for primary care, advanced care, cornea and contacts lens care, pediatric care and vision rehabilitation. 

This breadth of services is a benefit of being part of a university. Most private practices can’t afford everything universities can, Pence said.

But even with all its advancements, the school has struggled with public perception.

A couple years ago, Pence said they conducted focus groups with the Bloomington community, IU students and IU faculty. Largely, the community thought the clinic was only for students. Students perceived its only purpose to be for research, and faculty thought it was just for students. 

Since then, Pence said they’ve focused on advertising their clinic to the entire community. 

Currently, about 17 percent of the clinic’s patients are students and the rest coming from the community and surrounding counties.

Because of its breadth of specializations, 5 to 10 percent of the clinic’s patients are referrals. Some of these cases turn into research projects, which Pence called patient-based research. However, this is rare and most research projects happen in the Atwater building.

A few current projects at the Atwater building include studying infant vision and optics in relation to corrective lenses and myopia, according to Dean and Professor Joseph Bonanno.

As dean, Bonanno oversees these research projects and the school. He organizes the school’s accreditation certifications, making sure it maintains them so it can graduate students as doctors of optometry. 

Because the graduating class is small, students get to know faculty and staff.

“I love graduation because you see people who work really hard go off in the world and reflect back on their education at IU,” Bonanno said.

Thousands of students pursue healthcare degrees each year, but only a few go into optometry. Bonanno said he wishes more students would study it. 

“We’re all about vision, but sometimes we’re not visible,” he said.

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