On Saturday, 24 February 2018, four Specsavers team members braved the waters off the coast of Western Australia, jointly swimming almost 20km as part of the Rottnest Channel Swim in the name of rural eye health.

The team included Peter Larsen, Optometry Director for Specsavers Australia & New Zealand; Garry Fitzpatrick, Optometry Consultant for Specsavers Aus/NZ; Louise Winkler, Optometry Partner for Specsavers Nowra Stockland and Specsavers Nowra Central in New South Wales; and Kerrie Stevenson, Louise’s twin sister and a Specsavers locum optometrist.

The four signed on for the challenge to raise funds for the ‘Northwest Hub’, an initiative proposed by Lions Outback Vision (LOV).

Assoc Prof Angus Turner

Eye health in the northwest
LOV, which was established in 2010, aims to integrate eye care to bring screening, optometry and ophthalmology to rural populations. The organisation provides services throughout WA, and in 2017, it supported more than 7,300 patients through clinics, theatre, diabetic retinal screening, telehealth services as well as through its mobile Outback Vision Van and Visiting Optometry outreach service.

Although significant progress has been made in reducing blindness and vision loss in the area, LOV has identified that the traditional outreach and fly-in, fly-out model of providing eye care in northwest Australia is unsustainable.

“The northwest represents 16% of regional WA’s population and 21% of the Indigenous population,” explained Assoc Prof Angus Turner, Director of LOV. “The area represents 37% of the state – and yet there are no ophthalmologists living in the region. These demographics require at least three full-time specialists.

“The idea for the Northwest Hub grew out of discussions with a variety of stakeholders and a brainstorming session with the LOV team about how we could do more to reach remote communities more regularly and to offer the most effective regimes of treatments to patients.”

The Hub
The proposed Northwest Hub would be based in Broome, WA, providing weekly optometry and ophthalmology services throughout the Pilbara and Kimberley regions. Monthly specialist ophthalmology visits would also take place in eight locations to provide access to treatments such as for diabetic eye disease and macular degeneration.

Some of the features of the proposed Hub include:

  • Clinics and an on-call service for Broome Hospital, including telehealth around the northwest
  • A surgical facility to relieve demand for surgical time at Broome Hospital
  • An education facility designed for Indigenous Health Worker training and an optometry rural clinical school
  • Short-stay apartments for junior medical staff who are part of the RANZCO ophthalmology training program as well as senior registrars
  • A commercial kitchen and nutrition hub to provide healthy eating and diabetic prevention / awareness work linked to local schools
  • Capacity to share clinic and surgery facilities with other visiting specialists, encouraging collaboration with endocrinology, renal physicians and other allied health professionals – particularly in the co-management of diabetic complications.

LOV services rural populations in WA

“We know that the areas of greatest need are those that are the furthest from Perth and incur the greatest cost in getting treatment to people or people to treatment,” Assoc Prof Turner said. “The Hub not only enables a greater reach and increased frequency of service, but at a reduced cost. It also allows us to look at how we can use our Outback Vision Van to build a strong service in the Midwest, Goldfields, Wheatbelt and Great Southern regions. Most importantly, it offers a specialist service based in the place of need.”

The swim
At 19.7km, starting from Cottesloe Beach and ending at Rottnest Island, the Rottnest Channel Swim is no mean feat. Each year, thousands of people sign on to compete in what is known as one of the largest open water swim events in the world. However, this year held an additional challenge – one that rendered the Specsavers team’s name – ‘SPECtacular Sharkbait’ – somewhat ironic.

A 4m shark was spotted in the water during the event, with some swimmers forced to evacuate. Despite this, the Specsavers team completed the swim in 5 hours and 51 minutes – the 14th team to finish out of 23 charity teams.

Speaking on behalf of the team, Peter commented, “No doubt it was a tough challenge, but it was absolutely worth the hard yards if it means we’ll be helping to transform eye health in rural Australia. We’d like to thank those who supported us in the lead up to and during the swim, and all the people and organisations who donated towards the cause.”

For their efforts, the team has been able to raise over $8,000 for LOV’s Northwest Hub, including $1,000 donated directly by Specsavers.

“We are really appreciative of the support we have had from the Specsavers team and those who funded them in the swim,” Assoc Prof Turner said. “There is a lot of work that goes into getting something like an eye health hub built in a regional location, and without contributions like this, we would never get off the ground. Every amount counts and contributes to the end result, which is a huge investment in eye health for people living in the far north of WA who don’t have the same access to eye health services that those living in larger cities have.”

Plans are still in development for the Northwest Hub, and LOV is in the process of securing appropriate approvals and a location.

“We have a long way to go to secure the full funding to build and operate the Hub, but the money raised from the Rottnest Channel Swim will go a long way to make sure we have the appropriate planning, development, surveying and architecture in place to proceed,” Assoc Prof Turner said.

LOV aims to begin building in 2019, with the Hub expected to be operational by 2020.