Rowena Fuller, a graduate optometrist at Specsavers Ballarat and Wendouree in Victoria, has gained a new appreciation for sight and the value of optometry after participating in the second 2018 Fiji outreach trip. In the following account of her experience, she describes the tremendous impact that eye care can have in developing countries.

If you ask an optometrist why they decided to embark on their chosen career, most will say they wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. The opportunity to join the outreach program in Fiji, facilitated by the partnership between Specsavers and The Fred Hollows Foundation New Zealand, gave me the opportunity to do exactly that – not just within my local community, but further afield to places that require shared resources to achieve basic eye care standards.

Our trip centred on two Fred Hollows Foundation initiatives – the teaching program at the Pacific Eye Institute (PEI) in Suva and the Mobile Eye Clinic screening program based out of Lautoka.

The PEI runs a year-long diploma in eye care for nurses, giving them a crash course in refraction and health screenings, with a large focus on diabetes. This program has a huge impact, as students come from all around the Pacific Islands to learn the basics of eye care and then bring these skills back to their communities. Many of the students will be the only trained professionals in their region – or even across their entire island – who can provide eye care, as optometry and ophthalmology services are not available. This makes our partnership with this clinic incredibly important; it allows the students to have one-on-one instruction in a clinical setting, and the impact is widespread, with ongoing ocular care then provided across the Pacific without requiring a volunteer presence in all these locales.

Some of the students stay on and work with the Mobile Eye Clinic to do screenings and surgeries across the country in villages that would otherwise not have access to healthcare. This allows for general health issues to be picked up alongside eye care issues, with a large number of previously undiagnosed cases of diabetes being found during these village screenings.

One of the biggest things that impacted me was the level of vision a patient has to reach before they are eligible for cataract surgery. As eye care is considered of low importance within the Pacific’s wider healthcare system, few resources are currently allocated towards this, and a standard cataract is referred at 6/60 – in other words, they are legally blind.

The impact this has on so many people is astounding. Poor vision is detrimental to their social and mental wellbeing, as well as to their overall physical health. Patients with advanced cataracts are also unable to drive, read, watch TV or even perform basic tasks without mobility assistance.

As a graduate, I have only been in optometry for a short time, but this trip has been an incredibly rewarding experience and will travel with me throughout my career. I was reminded of how important sight is to our daily lives, and how easily we take it for granted. I encourage my fellow optical professionals to consider using their unique skillset to donate some time to avenues such as The Fred Hollow Foundation – you won’t regret it!