Most people have heard the saying that the eye is the window to the soul. But what they may not know is that the eyes also hold the key to revealing underlying health issues for many individuals.
As optometrists, we recognize that making eye exams accessible to underserved families can be a critical first step in addressing healthcare disparities in New York City. And as healthcare providers, we’re always looking for new ways to educate patients about the importance of preventative care as a first step in detecting chronic, systemic health issues and ultimately to enhance population health.
Brownsville and Battery Park are just nine miles apart, but life expectancies of their residents are more than ten years apart. Something as simple as an eye exam can help fix that. That’s why, three years ago, SUNY Optometry created the Health and Wellness Expo to bridge the gap between the most-vulnerable members of our society and healthcare professionals. By offering free screenings for vision, dental care, podiatry, as well as access to cholesterol, Body Mass Index, and diabetes testing, community members can engage with health professionals and start taking control of their wellbeing.
An eye exam is never just an eye exam. A routine eye exam offers far more than simply testing eye and visual health. It provides insights into the future health of a patient and reveals opportunities to enhance quality of life.
Eye examinations are especially critical for the pediatric population because good vision is crucial to children’s cognitive development. However, children from underserved and underrepresented communities often lack access to eye examinations based on perceived barriers – frequently, a result of financial challenges within the family.
The Expo, which was initially billed as a back-to-school event three years ago, and with less than 500 participants, has evolved into one of our most important community outreach initiatives. At our most recent Expo on August 3, we welcomed nearly 1,000 New Yorkers who had a chance to interact with health professionals and community-based organizations.
We know that race, ethnicity, and economic hardship are contributors to healthcare disparity, and it not only impacts the affected group but our entire community.
By connecting families to community health organizations from all over the city, we are working to ensure that no particular group remains marginalized.
The facts are troubling: Approximately 60 percent of children with learning difficulties have a form of undetected vision impairment. Twenty-five percent of school-aged children have an eye problem that limits vision. More than 60 percent of parents don’t include eye exams as part of their children’s healthcare routine.
Determined to ensure that financial barriers do not become an impediment to healthcare access, we formed critical partnerships with community organizations across all five boroughs.
By offering free vision screening alongside other health services providers, children and their families now have access to additional healthcare services and educational resources. More importantly, we are helping to eliminate one of the barriers that often translate into academic challenges for children.
When people think about healthcare, they often do not immediately think of optometry or the impact that eye care has on overall wellbeing. Nor do they realize that a simple eye exam can be a window to uncovering other chronic diseases. We know that eye health is critical, particularly among low-income communities and communities of color where rates of diabetes are high, leading to loss of eyesight.
As the only institution in New York State that educates Doctors of Optometry, we owe it to our communities to improve the health of our population through better eye care.
We understand the challenges that thousands of families in New York are experiencing. We know this because, across our clinical care system, we encounter nearly 250,000 patient visits annually, in addition to training the next generation of leaders and scholars in eye care, education, and research. One out of every two optometrists in New York are graduates of the SUNY College of Optometry. We must do all we can to prepare the next generation of healthcare providers to care about the communities they serve.
Dr. David A. Heath has served as president of the State University of New York College of Optometry since June 2007. He is the third president of SUNY Optometry, which was founded in 1971 and is one of the 64 campuses constituting the State of New York’s public university system. On Twitter @SUNYOPT.