Volunteering in Optometry: Is It a Good Thing?

Christina M. Sorenson, OD


August 14, 2015

The culture of volunteering is deep in our optometric conscience. The acculturation begins in our first year of professional school, with screenings at every preschool and school program within a 100-mile radius of campus. This activity continues over the next 3 years, with screenings for athletic teams and city health centers in our second professional year. In our third and fourth years, we have acquired the skills to participate in Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH) programs.

Volunteering our time and expertise continues as we build our practices: screening vans for corporations, state association functions at the state capital, participation in association programs, and national club presentations. But is all of this a good use of our time and talent?

I recently found this excerpt entitled "Worst Practice: Optometric 'Medical Missions'"on the Unite For Sight website[1]:

Providing optometric care solely in the form of presbyopic or refractive correction is counterproductive and can prevent patients from seeking eye care for other ophthalmic conditions. Many NGOs [non-governmental organizations] provide "optometric medical missions" in which they only prescribe eyeglasses during a short-term intervention to populations in developing countries. A serious misconception behind these types of missions is the idea that providing some care is better than providing none at all. However, "optometric medical missions" can be wasteful, unethical, and harmful, and they often serve as medical tourism or "volunteer vacations." These short-term interventions typically fail to partner with local eye doctors, thereby undermining the local healthcare system. Additionally, patients who encounter such optometric medical missions will leave believing they have received a complete ophthalmic exam, no matter how cursory the vision screening, even if they are explicitly told otherwise. If a patient with cataracts, for example, is told that eyeglasses will not correct his sight, but an option for subsidized or free cataract surgery is not provided, the patient will continue to believe that nothing can be done to improve his sight. This visit to the "optometric medical mission" group is often the only time that a patient will seek eye care.

This statement rocked the foundation of what I thought we accomplished when we spent those back-breaking hours in challenging locations.

After I recouped from the verbal slap to the face, I visited the VOSH site and found this affirmation[2]:

Approximately 670 million people worldwide are functionally blind or visually impaired because they do not have a pair of eyeglasses.

The lack of vision translates to failing at school, jobs, health, and personal lives. Those who cannot see are too often mired in poverty.

We travel the developing world and the US providing free quality vision care services through short-term clinics to those who need it. We also work to develop sustainable programs and local optometric capacity in the developing world in order to help local communities continue to provide quality vision care.

Our goal is to eradicate untreated refractive error–that is–to help people see again by correcting their vision with glasses. And once they can see, they can improve the quality of their lives and their own vision for a future for generations to come.

As all too often happens, we align ourselves with one way to accomplish a goal. Whether you are on a surgical medical mission or an optometric medical mission with a sustainable infrastructure that embraces the local healthcare system, you are adding to the quality of life through your work.

I have participated in many missions trips, both vision-only and multidisciplinary surgical services. The hours are long and the work is challenging, but the outcomes are always rewarding.

As optometry continues a lifelong devotion to giving back, we should always keep the pitfalls of short-term intervention in mind and strive to continue to develop the ideal outcomes for the people we seek to assist.


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