Dr. Charles Mullen: Executive Director of PCO ’76 -‘90

Dr-Mullen-2.JPGHis future father-in-law and a set of encyclopedias carved the way for Dr. Charles Mullen’s prestigious career in optometric clinical education and patient care services. “My then future father-in-law had just bought a set of encyclopedias and said to me with that you get three research questions,” Dr. Mullen said. “So the question I posed was ‘what are some of the occupations I should consider’ and it came back Optometry.” Living in Rhode Island at the time, he decided to explore the optometry program at the New England College of Optometry (NECO) and was accepted.

With a Doctor of Optometry degree and a strong interest in the strategic direction of the profession, Dr. Mullen started his career as a special assistant to the president for clinical development at the NECO. There he started his vision for an inter-disciplinary approach to eye care through the development of a network of affiliated community health centers for educational and patient care purposes in inner-city Boston.

Dr. Mullen was then recruited in 1976 by Dr. Norman E. Wallis, College president from 1972 to 1979, to serve as director in the Division of Patient Care for the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), later becoming executive director. PCO had just received a federal grant to build a new facility, and Dr. Mullen was hired to develop the operational aspects of said facility, which included personnel planning, patient care activities and marketing.

“With a talented and enthusiastic clinical faculty in place, marketing was one of the biggest challenges,” stated Dr. Mullen. “We had a large facility, built in an obscure neighborhood in Philadelphia with no patient base, so I had to create patients as quickly as possible. I always said I had the most expensive marketing education of anyone in the world as I had to trial and error so many things before we started to be productive.”

With very little healthcare marketing being done in the country in the mid-seventies, Dr. Mullen located an agency in Valley Forge, Pa. to help develop a marketing strategy. They concentrated on radio ads but also tried direct mail, TV, print, billboards, and even a hot air balloon.

Then in 1978, Dr. William Feinbloom brought his practice from New York to Philadelphia and established the William Feinbloom Vision Rehabilitation Center, housed at The Eye Institute Oak Lane campus. This practice not only brought in a lot of international patients but it  generated publicity from Dr. Feinbloom’s work as well.

Dr-Mullen-3.JPGOne patient of the Low Vision Center was the mother of David Brenner, a local TV personality and comedian. David’s father, happy with his wife’s new low vision aids, volunteered his son to do a commercial during a visit. Several months later Dr. Mullen received a call from David saying he was ready to do the commercial. “It was a Friday and he wanted to do it Saturday in his dressing room at a casino in which he was performing,” recounted Dr. Mullen. “I just assumed it was Atlantic City. I called our agency to let them know we had this opportunity and when I gave them the name of the casino they told me it was in Las Vegas. It was a golden opportunity, so I told the agency we have to do it. We sent him a script and flew in a TV crew. At the end of the script, David ad-libbed a funny line ‘the good thing about her visual aids is now my mom can cook, the bad thing is she now knows I have a big nose.’ As a result of that line, all the local TV stations ran the ad as a public service announcement, resulting in a lot of activity.” In 1985, David Brenner received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws from PCO.

Dr. Mullen’s crash course in marketing paid off with a CLIO award for a radio ad he created, along with the advertising agency, on the early detection of glaucoma.

During his tenure with PCO, Dr. Mullen also negotiated the first affiliation between an optometry school and a medical college, Hahnemann University, the first of its kind in the United States.

In 1990, Dr. Mullen was appointed director, Optometry Service for the Department of Veteran Affairs in Washington, D.C., the highest-ranking optometrist in Federal Service. He implemented strategic and tactical planning and developed the operational structure for the Optometry Service including standardizing the educational component.

After serving six years with the VA, Dr. Mullen served as president of the Illinois College of Optometry (ICO) until his retirement in 2002. He was recruited to the position following a recent scandal involving malfeasance by the former president and chairman of the board.

“My wife and I had just moved to a condo on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago,” recalled Dr. Mullen, “and when I retrieved a newspaper from a nearby kiosk the front page featured the scandal of the Illinois College of Optometry. In the next few days, my wife and I noticed our neighbors in the condo were ignoring us. They thought I was the president involved in the scandal. We were asked to meet with the condo board where we explained my employment following the scandal.”

During his tenure, he introduced performance-based strategic planning, negotiated an affiliation with the University of Chicago, Department of Ophthalmology, increased ICO’s externship sites, improved student performance, reduced student attrition and was able to restore ICO’s credibility with the alumni and staff.

Dr. Mullen served on various boards and received many prestigious honors including induction into the National Optometry Hall of Fame and the Presidential Medal of Honor from PCO and NECO, to name a few. He is co-founder and president of the American Board of Optometry Specialties.

A visionary in optometry, Dr. Mullen paved the way for clinical education and patient care models used in the profession today.