Building awareness from scratch isn't the same as building exam lanes from nothing, admits Rebecca Chown, O.D., outlaying her latest plans for a children's vision project in northern Oregon.
"I feel like we've dropped the ball on the education part of things," Dr. Chown says candidly. "That's the question that comes up almost every day: When do you recommend my child has their first eye exam?
"Our communities don't know how often they should be getting an eye exam. They don't know that kids should be having routine eye exams, and they don't know kids should be seen on a regular basis."
It's a troubling eye health and vision awareness dearth, for sure. But, it's a relatively good dilemma to have compared to a year ago—now there's at least some place for them to go for answers. Before, there was nothing.
A federally designated Medically Underserved Area, Boardman, on the banks of the Columbia River, is home to 3,200 people. Many are served by the community health center bearing the river's name, but vision care wasn't a priority until a collaborative opportunity approached Dr. Chown.
Last year, Oregon Health & Science University's (OHSU) Head Start program teamed up with Dr. Chown and Columbia River Community Health Services (CRCHS) to ensure 26 children identified through a local vision screening program could receive follow-up eye care from an eye doctor.
"We had 26 field photo screens and they literally were on a waiting list for over a year to be seen," Dr. Chown recalls. "I donated my time and in that day, of all 26 exams that were done, 26 kids needed glasses."
The community need was evident, and the partnership started working toward a permanent solution at CRCHS. But equipment is expensive, so Dr. Chown pitched her project to Optometry Cares®—The AOA Foundation.
Prioritizing pediatric vision care
The Healthy Eyes Healthy Children Community Grants Program, sponsored by the Essilor Vision Foundation, is an Optometry Cares initiative that focuses on increasing outreach of vision services to communities, families, schools and the medical community with special attention to underserved children. The program furnishes up to $5,000 in grant money to projects that help support those goals and align important optometric care within the community.
By taking a grassroots approach through the optometric community and working through existing community-based vision care models nationwide, funding is intended to spread awareness and increase vision services to address uncorrected vision in each community.
Last year, HEHC awarded more than $65,000 across 14 grants, helping doctors of optometry reach more than 100,000 people in 12 geographically diverse states. Funded by Essilor Vision Foundation, which also provides in-kind lens and lab support, HEHC received more than 30 applications in 2017.
Carol Record, O.D., Optometry Cares Board and HEHC committee co-chair, explained to AOA Focus that funding falls into several different categories, including supporting transportation to optometric care, purchasing equipment for pediatric examinations sites, purchasing children's eyeglasses and providing education regarding the importance of comprehensive eye care among children.
"Despite inclusion of children's eye examinations as an essential benefit under the Affordable Care Act, children are still lacking care and are in need of eye examinations and eyeglasses," Dr. Record said in December 2017. "The projects funded through the HEHC grant process will help to close the gaps in care, either through direct examination of children or education of the need for eye examinations to parents and community leaders."
And that's precisely how Dr. Chown helped take the CRCHS pediatric eye care initiative from vision to fruition.
Bolstering Boardman's awareness
Building a small eye care clinic inside CRCpeHS, furnished with equipment acquired via grants and donations, Dr. Chown makes the two-hour drive to Boardman once a month for a full clinic day. Typically, patients have been pre-screened, allowing Dr. Chown to focus solely on eye exams. She even brings along her optician to fit frames and order lenses.
The community health center has welcomed the eye care clinic with open arms—as has the community itself.
"We've had a couple of doctors with complex eye cases come over and do same-day consults," Dr. Chown says. "The patients that have been through have been over the moon that we have this service that we're able to provide them. It's opened an opportunity in a rural community to be able to provide services they wouldn't otherwise receive."
Where last year the collaboration focused solely on the nuts and bolts of establishing a clinic, this year's drive is to build awareness for the services and educate parents about the importance of children's eye care. Dr. Chown says she hopes to use 2018 HEHC funding to help educate about good vision, and classroom preparedness and performance.
"Every little bit helps, and I would love to see more of my colleagues getting out into their communities and providing more awareness and services, especially for our kids," she says.
Want more information?
Do you have a children's vision project that you'd like to propose for your community? The 2018 HEHC grant application cycle is open, now through July 2, 2018. Applications must be received by midnight CST.
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