I found myself in an awkward position being invited to write about Optometry for its international celebration – World Optometry Day. Indeed, it seemed somewhat impertinent or perhaps even insensible to talk about anything other than the COVID-19 pandemic at this time. But it is in this same context, as I reflected on a question posed by a colleague on how COVID-19 is impacting optometry, that I found the necessary impetus and ground to write about optometry today.
Indeed, it is as I observe my colleague optometrists around the world pressing to provide remote and urgent care to the population – not only as a needed response to the COVID-19 crisis in triaging emergencies and minimize the influx of patients into hospitals – but also as part of the usual daily essential services they provide, that I can appreciate how far the profession has come in playing an integral part of the health care system.
As a relatively new profession, optometry has evolved over the last century from a profession almost strictly focused on refraction and spectacles into a health care profession that sits at the center of the incredible global eye health challenges that we are facing today.
Naturally, with its traditional background, optometry is best equipped to play an essential role in addressing the 2.2 billion people living with vision impairment globally the majority due to uncorrected refractive error, and address the insidious epidemic of myopia, which affects 2.6 billion people globally and projected to hit 50% of the population (5 billion persons) by 2050 unless the trend is reversed. However, optometrists are now also capable of managing many other conditions of public health concern that add to the global burden of vision impairment such as diabetes and glaucoma, as well as those arising from our evolving lifestyles such as dry eye and binocular problems which cause visual distress.
Over the last decades, with the advent of VISION 2020 and the WHO Universal eye health: a global action plan 2014-2019, the demand, development and recognition of optometry has grown significantly in the world. Optometry programmes were setup in numerous countries around the globe in order to respond to the critical shortage of the highly needed human resource in eye health. With 90% of vision impairment in the developing context, these efforts targeted African (ex. Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique), Asian (ex. Vietnam) or South American (Nicaragua, Haiti) nations. However, the demand and challenges for the installment of optometry in all parts of the world are high and probably unrealistic in the short term to effectively address the existing and rising global eye health problems.
As the profession continues to setup and expand in new terrains, it can play a leading role in mobilising alternative modalities and driving the health community into new paradigms that will catalyse and scale up efforts towards addressing global eye health and eradicating avoidable vision impairment. With a new professional outlook, heightened level of education, and global drive to step up and respond to global eye care needs, the profession is keenly poised to be a key part of the solution.
So, as we go through and emerge from the COVID-19 crisis – and we will – I invite you to reflect on a great profession that will live on to address the ongoing pandemic of eye health issues that will continue to exist past it.
Luigi is an international optometric consultant.