Joel Robison

Joel Robison

It is not a secret that Oklahoma has challenges when it comes to healthcare. The United Health Foundation ranks Oklahoma as the sixth least healthy state in the nation. Their report cites the limited availability of primary care physicians (like family doctors) as one of Oklahoma’s chief obstacles to better health.

As the report suggests, Oklahomans often struggle to get the medical care they need, sometimes having to drive long distances for routine checkups. In fact, 64 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties are currently classified as areas with a shortage of primary care physicians.

Many people are familiar with the state’s rural doctor shortage and the struggle to recruit and retain high quality medical professionals. Less are familiar, however, with the exception to this rule: doctors of optometry from across the nation are practically lining up for the chance to practice in Oklahoma.

Hollywood may consider us “flyover country,” but the best and brightest optometric physicians have for years considered Oklahoma to be a destination state for vision care. As a result, we are home to hundreds of optometric physicians with offices in almost all of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, meaning patients rarely must travel long distances for world-class care.

Oklahoma has evolved into a national leader in optometry for three reasons. First, we have the premier school for eye doctors in-training in the country: Northeastern State University’s Oklahoma College of Optometry. This is a nationally renowned institution that attracts faculty and students from all over the world.

Second, optometrists in Oklahoma have the broadest scope-of-practice in the nation. While eye doctors in many other states are essentially relegated to writing prescriptions for contact lenses and glasses, optometric physicians in Oklahoma perform surgeries, diagnose and treat conditions that can cause blindness or even death, and take a much broader and more medically intensive approach to vision health.

That broadly defined scope-of-practice brings us to the third reason that Oklahoma is a destination state for optometrists: a regulatory environment that sets a high bar for quality and patient care. Unlike in many other states, optometry in Oklahoma is practiced only in medical settings rather than big box stores like Walmart. Eye doctors are unencumbered by sales quotas, corporate meddling, or a Walmart manager pressuring them to sell more glasses. As a result, Oklahoma’s optometrists are free to do what they do best and love the most: take care of their patients.

Unfortunately, all of that could change. Walmart is pushing a ballot initiative, State Question 793, which would amend the state Constitution to put optometry in big box stores and water-down the rules and regulations that have served our state well for decades.

If State Question 793 passes this November, the laws governing eye health in Oklahoma won’t be about medicine or patient safety; they will be about the corporate bottom line. We can expect quality of care to deteriorate, as Oklahoma will no longer be a destination-state for optometric physicians excited about the state’s commitment to putting patients first. Access to care will also diminish as optometrists close up shop or are forced into a few dozen Walmart supercenters across the state. Oklahomans will see optometry plagued by the same problems that impact other health care sectors: a shortage of quality doctors and subsequently poor outcomes. Walmart will profit greatly from that arrangement. Patients will not.

Luckily, we can avoid this outcome and prevent Walmart from dismantling a uniquely successful part of our health care landscape by rejecting this proposition. I urge all Oklahomans to act in the best interests of their own vision health by voting “no” on State Question 793 this November.