A VISION USA provider since she graduated in 2002, Dr. Patrick knows that Optometry Cares®—The AOA Foundation program isn't solely about making a difference in the vision of low-income, uninsured individuals, it's about being a part of the catalyzing moment that helps get a patient's life back on track. With every referral that Dr. Patrick examines, she's helping someone, ultimately, help themselves.
Each patient that Carey Patrick, O.D., sees through VISION USA is another reminder of why she went into optometry to begin with—to make a difference.
"How can these people really pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they can't see well enough to fill out a job application, catch the bus or even punch keys on a keyboard?" Dr. Patrick says. "VISION USA makes a difference in these people's lives in a very profound way."
By volunteering services at no charge to qualifying individuals, VISION USA providers have aided more than 430,000 people since the program's inception in 1991. Dr. Patrick points out that many of these referrals critically turn up systemic health issues—diabetes, hypertension or glaucoma—that help prioritize patients' access to Medicaid. Therefore, it's no stretch to see how VISION USA represents a doorway into the greater health care system, Dr. Patrick says.
"Many of these people could be at that place of desperation, of picking and choosing care, and with changes to current health care law, there's the potential for growth in eligible patients that we should prepare for," she says. "A job with many hands makes light work for all, they say. If we have a lot of doctors that can give an exam or two, no one is overburdened by the needs of their community."
Dr. Patrick is one of nearly 3,000 AOA-member doctors of optometry who provide no-cost, comprehensive eye examinations to low-income, uninsured Americans. In 2016, 144 new volunteers joined VISION USA, providing basic examinations in 40 states and Washington, D.C.
Tapping an unmet need
Celebrating its 25th anniversary at Optometry's Meeting® 2016 in Boston, VISION USA's longevity is a testament to the need and delivery of quality eye and vision health services. Even with changes under the Affordable Care Act, there are still individuals who do not have or cannot afford health or vision insurance, says Scott Burks, O.D., VISION USA committee member.
"VISION USA helps fill that void so people can get access to vision care, where otherwise, they might go without," Dr. Burks says. He adds that while the program has changed some since 1991, its mission—to deliver free exams to eligible, low-income individuals—remains central.
"VISION USA continues to evolve in order to stay a worthwhile and relevant program for AOA. The VISION USA committee and staff continue to look at ways that we can expand and improve the program to help even more individuals and meet their vision care needs."
Since the program's launch, doctors of optometry have made a difference in countless communities. Here are just a few of the program's milestones in its 25th year:
- 2,800 community organizations have referred patients for care or services
- 45,000 calls received each year by the VISION USA helpline
- 95% of applicants have been diagnosed with an eye condition
- 79% of applicants need glasses
As a VISION USA provider, himself, Dr. Burks says he's able to see how much the program benefits those in need from a firsthand perspective.
"To doctors that may be interested in joining: VISION USA not only helps those in need, but also helps the community in which you practice, in turn, helping distinguish your office," he says.
Make a difference today
Altruistically, VISION USA providers give back out of a sense of community stewardship and a passion for making a difference. Earlier this year, Optometry Cares presented the VISION USA Service Award to three providers—Jessica Kruse, O.D. (TX); Jeffrey Long, O.D. (OK); and Edward Weaver, Jr., O.D. (NC)—for their hard work and selfless volunteerism. But for all the providers currently making a difference, VISION USA encourages even more participation as many volunteers near retirement.
In a virtual kick-off, the AOA launches Leadership Institute with 130 doctors of optometry from across the country. A project of the AOA Leadership Development Committee, the Institute is a yearlong program designed to grow and support the next generation of leaders in the profession.
At the 2021 Leaders Summit, AOA-member volunteers set priorities for the year and launched new initiatives to lead the profession forward.