There will be enough optometrists—and perhaps an oversupply—into the year 2025, according to a new study of the number of US eye care providers.

The Eye Care Workforce Study was jointly initiated by the AOA and the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO) and performed by The Lewin Group, a health care policy consulting firm. The study considered a complex mix of both supply and demand factors in all of eye care—optometrists and ophthalmologists included.

On the supply side, the study factored in retiring eye doctors, the stagnant supply of ophthalmologists, the rising numbers of female optometrists (and how their workload could affect supply) and a potential increase of optometrists with the opening of more OD schools. The study also took into account that many optometrists have open appointments in their schedules that could be filled with additional patients—an “excess capacity” of 20 patient visits a week without adding practice hours.

On the demand side, the study factored in the growth of the US population. It also estimated an increased number of adults and children covered under the Affordable Care Act, as well as a need for more eye care services due to the growing prevalence of diabetes in America.

“If these sources of demand are realized, then excess capacity in the [eye care] workforce will be substantially reduced, but not eliminated,” concluded the executive summary of the study.

Some specific points from the study:

• An estimated 40,484 ODs are in active practice in 2014.
• Male optometrists (22,809) currently make up 56% of the workforce and female optometrists (17,675) account for 44%. However, the average female OD is significantly younger (40.2 years old) than the average male OD (50.9), which suggests a growing proportion of women in the workforce.

A Starting Point
At a press conference held during June’s AOA meeting in Philadelphia, AOA and ASCO officials underscored that this study is merely a start—a working model from which to begin to continuously assess eye care supply and demand as factors change.

“What we’ve got is a great starting point,” said ASCO representative David Heath, OD, MEd. The study will be updated on a yet-to-be determined intermittent basis.

For now, people can use the study in several ways. Optometry schools—or universities interested in opening an optometry school—can use the data to consider that expanding class size or opening a new school may not be necessary, Dr. Heath said.

Also, it may help point out to current students the importance of practice location. “We do know that there are huge underserved [rural] areas in the United States,” Dr. Heath said. But opening a new practice down the street from your optometry school alma mater? Not a smart idea.

The study also corroborates optometry’s expansion of scope of practice and the removal of insurance barriers to providing care, not to mention greater involvement in health policy decisions, said AOA’s Randy Brooks, OD, who chaired the study project.

“Most of the new demand [predicted by the study] is coming from the medical side,” Dr. Brooks said. “So it shows there’s a greater opportunity for ODs to provide full-scope eye care.”