Eye Center at Southern College of Optometry in Memphis celebrates 20 years

Located off Madison Avenue in Midtown might be one of Memphis’ best-kept health secrets. While people driving along the street recognize the tower of the Southern College of Optometry, many don’t realize the campus is also home to The Eye Center, a full-service primary care vision center, said James Venable, professor Associate and Vice President of Clinical Programs.

The clinic not only offers a nationally recognized program for the training of future eye specialists, but also a space for the treatment of multiple visual problems. The center treats more than 60,000 patients each year.

And for a significant number of these people, the clinic is able to provide free or low-cost care.

“We strive very diligently that no one who is referred to us, who comes to us, leaves without care,” Venable said.

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Funding for this comes from grants and business partners. Vision Service Plan, a vision benefits company, provides vouchers to clinics nationwide to help uninsured or underinsured patients get the care they need.

The center also dedicates a portion of its annual revenue to providing this free or affordable care. He is also currently in month six of a $150,000 grant from the United Healthcare Foundation to provide free vision care to three underserved ZIP codes in Memphis.

James Venable, left, associate professor and vice president of clinical programs, tours the Eye Center.

This all comes as The Eye Center celebrates its 20th year of operation as a primary care facility and a crucial teaching center for the Southern College of Optometry, one of less than 25 optometry schools in the nation.

About 60 doctors work at the Eye Center, which not only provides care for patients in Memphis, but also patients across the country. Venable said the center’s large number of physicians who are nationally recognized in their specialties draw patients far beyond the Mid-South.

The college has graduated over 6,000 students since it opened in 1932 who have gone on to practice across the country and around the world.

“(The eye center is) sought after because of the level of care we provide and the level of expertise of our doctors,” Venable said.

Part of that starts with training the next generation of optometrists. And Venable said the school and center have long been ahead of the game in what students learn and have the opportunity to practice.

They have been taught minor surgical procedures, which can be performed in the clinic, since 1994. Many other schools of optometry have only started teaching them in recent years and many still do not teach the use of lasers for the treatment of glaucoma and cataracts.

People train with a virtual reality headset at the Southern College of Optometry.

These laser treatments are done in conjunction with ophthalmologists, a different but overlapping specialty, due to a Tennessee law requiring it.

As part of an ongoing $3 million on-campus renovation project, the college is also updating its technology and creating a new service area where students can perform these minor surgeries more frequently.

Some of these minor medical procedures involve removing lumps from the eye and performing biopsies to determine if these might be malignant.

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Third and fourth year students at the Southern College of Optometry spend much of their time gaining clinical experience at the Eye Center. Fourth-year students also spend time at clinics at Crosstown Concourse and the University of Memphis.

The center treats approximately 60,000 patients per year between these three clinics.

But despite the availability of quality optometric care in Memphis, it remains somewhat neglected locally and across the country. In a Johnson & Johnson survey published in 2020, 80% of adults surveyed said they considered routine eye exams important for overall health. However, only 46% said they have one every year.

The Eye Center's three clinics serve 60,000 patients from Memphis and beyond each year.

“So although they think it’s important, for some reason they don’t reach out and get the service on a regular basis. It behooves us as a profession to try to emphasize the significance, especially in children, who have no frame of reference,” Venable said.

He praised the children’s vision benefit portion of the Affordable Care Act and has since seen a significant increase in the number of patients under 20 seeking vision care.

“We caught a significantly higher number of children who would have vision problems that would go undetected and we were able to resolve them, manage them, treat them so that they could function optimally in the school system as well as for work and life in general,” he said.

Detecting and correcting potential vision problems can have a significant impact on children’s potential career paths. Professions ranging from pilot to electrician and engineer to member of the military service are inaccessible to those with certain visual problems.

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“Often we don’t catch vision problems until a child fails a school screening. Largely, probably, it’s because the eyes don’t usually hurt. So we don’t think about them. And young children don’t have a frame of reference,” he said.

This is where the center comes in. Children should have annual eye exams and adults should have one about every three years.

An aerial photo of the Southern College of Optometry campus in Midtown Memphis.

“Just because your eyes are, doesn’t mean you think your eyes work for you. That doesn’t mean there aren’t physical changes in the eye that could predispose certain health conditions that may limit your vision dramatically,” he said. “As you get older, the eye changes.

Memphis has a rich healthcare ecosystem, and The Eye Center is one of them, Venable said.

“We work very closely and cooperatively with the healthcare community. We are almost adjacent to the Methodist University Hospital here. We are just down the street from the University of Tennessee. And we refer patients quite frequently. We provide cooperative care,” he said. “We are a vital part of the primary health care network in this region.

Corinne S Kennedy covers economic development and healthcare for The Commercial Appeal. She can be contacted by email at[email protected]

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