Eyes in the path: Doctors of optometry convey eclipse safety

August 1, 2017
AOA offers solar eclipse safe-viewing resources, materials for members.

Kim Baxter, O.D., knew the solar eclipse would be a "hot topic" in his area—after all, North Platte, Nebraska, is right in the path of totality. But it wasn't until after Dr. Baxter's solar eclipse eye safety message hit the airwaves that he recognized the chord he struck within his community.

"We had 500 pairs of solar eclipse glasses that we were giving away in the office," Dr. Baxter says. "I went on the radio one morning to discuss eclipse eye safety, then within a day, all 500 pairs were gone. We're ordering them in units of a thousand now, just selling them at cost."

Now, Dr. Baxter's public service announcement has flourished into what he calls a "public service opportunity." So far, his eye safety message has spanned three radio interviews, two local newspaper articles and a pair of television spots, one of which has aired cross-state in Lincoln. Dr. Baxter chalks it up to simple due diligence on his part as a primary eye care provider; the community knew they could count on their doctor of optometry to provide accurate information to safeguard their eyesight.

"The media is hungry for information to share with their readers or viewers, and nobody's better qualified than optometry to provide that information," he says. "I've been astounded by the amount of exposure that's been given to myself and my practice. We did it just because we thought it was our responsibility, but it's been far bigger than I ever envisioned in creating a buzz for our practice in this community."

Call it a proverbial, 'making hay' situation: the dearth of awareness for safe eclipse viewing combined with the sheer amount of Americans able to watch this eclipse offers an unparalleled opportunity for doctors of optometry to fill an information void. And that's precisely what doctors nationwide are doing.

What to know about the eclipse

This Aug. 21, 2017, a solar eclipse will envelop the entire nation. It's the first total eclipse to cut a cross-continental path over the United States since 1918, and the first eclipse viewed across the contiguous United States since 1979. Although some 500 million people across North America will see at least a partial eclipse, there's a narrow, 70-mile band from Oregon to South Carolina, where nearly 12 million people live, that will experience the phenomenon of 'totality.'

Totality, the point at which the moon completely blocks the sun, is the only time during a solar eclipse when it is safe to remove special eclipse glasses or viewers to gaze on the obscured sun. Everyone else must view the partially eclipsed sun through eclipse glasses or viewers that meet ISO 12312-2 international standards, or through devices such as pinhole projectors.

The consequences of improperly viewing the eclipse can be immense and permanent, and because the retina has no pain receptors, that damage can occur without any sensation of pain. Solar retinopathy can occur in a very short amount of time, damaging the fovea and harming visual acuity. That's why AOA partnered with the American Astronomical Society (AAS), NASA and others to push the criticality of eye safety.

As part of that ongoing outreach, AOA and member doctors are helping generate public awareness. Recently, those efforts culminated in a whopping 1.9 billion impressions—a metric of how often a message is viewed—through local and national media

Communicating solar eclipse eye safety

Approached by a local university library department, Dr. Colley was asked to speak on eclipse eye safety as part of a free, community lecture with the university physics department. While the physics professor spoke to the science of a solar eclipse, Dr. Colley used AOA's resources to reinforce safe viewing tips, as well as what to look for that might signify solar retinopathy.

"Our primary message, overall, was that it's going to be a spectacular event to enjoy, but you must do so safely," Dr. Colley says. "We saw this as a great opportunity to talk about eye health, in general, and not only the importance of regular eye exams, but also what to do if you have an injury—to go to your doctor of optometry."

Nearly four dozen attendees took that message home, and it wasn't long before Dr. Colley's presentation crossed a local radio station that wants to broadcast an interview with her community-wide. For Dr. Colley, eclipse eye safety is more than a good conversation starter, it's a practice builder.

So, too, other doctors like Terry Hawks, O.D., of Kansas City, Missouri, are using the media outlets available right at their fingertips—social media. Wanting to emphasize the dangers of improper eclipse viewing, Dr. Hawks' practice put up information on their Facebook page, as well as sent out a patient email that notified them of a free pair of eclipse glasses, courtesy of the practice.

"Our office motto is 'See Better, Live Better.' Therefore, we try to do everything we can to optimize and preserve our patients' vision," Dr. Hawks notes. "It's natural for any eye care provider to want to discuss this with their patients as it is part of our total commitment to help them see better and live better."

True to form, it wasn't long before a local TV station approached Dr. Hawks to discuss proper ISO-certified eclipse glasses. He used that opportunity to reinforce safe viewing practices, much of which he adopted from AOA's resources.

Now, with less than 20 days before Americans get a front-row seat to the celestial show of a lifetime, there's still time for doctors of optometry to help their communities understand solar eclipse viewing safety. Like the eclipse itself, this isn't an opportunity you'll want to miss.

Read more about solar eclipse eye safety in the May 2017 AOA Focus.

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