MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The WVU Eye Institute is celebrating 20 years of serving patients in West Virginia and beyond. The education, research, and outreach done by the WVU Eye Institute has made it an international leader in the field, serving as a model for organizations around the world.
“This milestone shows the strength of our commitment to providing state-of-the-art care to the people of our state and region,” Thomas Mauger, M.D., WVU Eye Institute professor and Jane McDermott Shott Chair, said. “Our organization has grown significantly in the last 20 years, allowing us to reach deep into the corners of the state and expand access to eye care and adaptive technologies.”
The WVU Eye Institute is the only provider of specialty eye care in the state. Patients travel from across the region in order to receive cutting-edge treatments for various eye diseases, including uveitis and thyroid eye disease. It is also home to the only three-year Ophthalmology Residency Program in the state and subspecialty fellowships available in cornea, retina, plastic surgery, and glaucoma.
“At the time the WVU Eye Institute was built, WVU Medicine had land available that it wanted to develop, and there was a bit of a competition as to what type of facility would be best to go into that space,” Judie Charlton, M.D., WVU Eye Institute ophthalmologist, said. “At that time, the Department had success in research; good relationships with donors, including the Lions Club; and there were some sustained gifts as well. We brought a lot to the table in regard to our vision for what an Eye Institute could be and some up-front financial resources to make that happen.”
With additional help from donors, including late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the construction was completed in 2000 and the Department moved in on April 16, 2001. Since that day, the Institute has grown and expanded its reach, serving 19,159 patients during 77,262 visits in 2019. Despite the COVID pandemic, the WVU Eye Institute never closed in 2020 and saw 18,236 patients during 70,872 visits.
“The fact that the organization invested in the Department and its mission improved public perception of our capabilities, we saw a 20 percent increase in patient volume in the first year we were in the new building,” Dr. Charlton said. “It also improved our ability to recruit physicians and researchers. Our offices were formerly located in a double-wide trailer, and the new facility with offices and laboratory space made it much easier to bring in professionals who wanted to perform research and discover new treatments and technologies.”
Serving the underserved
The WVU Eye Institute provides care to populations not commonly treated by private practitioners, including those with complex medical and surgical problems involving their eyes. It also provides consultation on patients at WVU Medicine J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital when requested.
“We provide far more care for patients who have limited resources than you would in private practice,” Geoffrey Bradford, M.D., WVU Eye Institute ophthalmologist and residency program director, said. “We see patients every day from the far reaches of the state that have traveled to receive specialty care, and many of those come from impoverished areas.”
The Institute provides outreach through clinics across the state at or near WVU Medicine hospitals and through its Appalachian Vision Outreach Program to underserved populations by partnering with Health Right clinics in Huntington, Charleston, Beckley, Summersville, Clarksburg, and Wheeling. These clinics provide free eye exams and refer patients to providers who can improve or restore vision or eye health. It has clinics and an eye screening program with the Larry Joe Harless Community Center in Mingo County to support southern West Virginia, and it has global outreach activities, particularly with helping St. Lucia and developing countries in Africa.
The Institute also works with local school systems to identify children who are blind or have low vision in order to provide adaptive training and equipment.
“With our children’s low vision program, we bridge the gap between the academic and medical fields,” Rebecca Coakley, WVU Eye Institute Children’s Vision Rehabilitation Program director, said. ”Our multidisciplinary team works with our patients to help them learn how to use adaptive technologies and develop skills that can help them throughout their lives.”
Preventing blindness through research
The construction of the WVU Eye Institute also allowed for growth and change within the WVU Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. The facility continues to attract some of the brightest minds in the field, making the Institute a leader in research.
The research program, with the support from National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding, is making breakthrough discoveries in basic research that increases understanding of biological processes and lays the foundation for advances in diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of blinding diseases.
“When I joined the WVU Eye Institute in 2006, the research program was in its early stages,” Visvanathan Ramamurthy, Ph.D., WVU Eye Institute researcher and professor, said. “We have grown to a small and nimble team that can achieve more through collaborative science.”
According to Dr. Ramamurthy, a strength of the WVU Eye Institute is that much of its research focuses on preventing blindness due to retinal disease. This common focus allows for greater collaboration within the Institute and across interdisciplinary WVU faculty.
“The next step for our Institute is to recruit clinician scientists who can translate our basic research into clinical implementation with our patients,” Ramamurthy said. “There is a great deal of research into how we can prevent blindness through technologies, such as gene therapy, and we look forward to seeing this work develop into clinical research that leads to the implementation of new and better treatments to restore vision and prevent blindness.”
For more information on the WVU Eye Institute, visit WVUMedicine.org/Eye.