Ian Russell of Specsavers Wanganui, New Zealand was one of the two optometrists selected to travel to Suva, Fiji to work for a week at the Pacific Eye Institute (PEI), which is run by The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ. Ian outlines his experience assisting with the training of Pacific-based nurses, who provide eye care to the local communities.

I have been on optometry outreaches in the past, but this time was different. Previously, I had been examining eyes and prescribing glasses or referring for cataract or other eye disease, but this time my role involved advising nurses on refraction techniques and lending a hand with making recommendations for glasses.

The PEI provides ready-made spectacles ranging from +6D to -6D for FJ$15. While most people presenting for glasses would manage with these, we came across a few young patients who required custom-made glasses. In these cases, Specsavers will provide custom glasses at no cost to the patient.

We had one young nine-year-old whose existing glasses were lost over a year ago. She had astigmatism of nearly 3D in each eye, so school had been a challenge for her. Between the nursing student and myself, we were able to determine an accurate refraction for her, and chose a nice set of frames. Once the glasses arrive in Suva, she’ll be back to seeing well at school.

Because refraction is so automatic for me, it took a bit of concentrating to remember the training process and go back to thinking about each step. Although the equipment and test room were very basic, the nurses were able to achieve good results, despite only having had two weeks of refraction experience at that point.

The main benefit I had from visiting the PEI was seeing how the money raised for The Fred Hollows Foundation is being used to train the local health workers. All the nurses’ tuition fees are covered by The Foundation, as well as a monthly living allowance, and they are supplied with equipment to take back to their communities. The equipment includes a trial lens set, trial frame, direct ophthalmoscope and retinoscope, as well as a 90D lens. Providing this at no cost enables the nurses to train and practise in eye care; they would not be able to afford this themselves. The same applies for the eye doctors training at the PEI – they, too, have their costs covered by The Fred Hollows Foundation while they are training. Having run two half marathons to raise money for The Foundation in the last year, I really valued seeing how the money is being used to make such a big difference in local Pacific communities.

The experience also made me incredibly appreciative of how fortunate we are in NZ to have access to optometry and ophthalmology services. We make a difference every day to how people see and function, but in the Pacific, people either have no access to eye care or must travel a very long way to see anyone. The more local eye care providers that can be trained, the better the level of care for communities will be. We are also very lucky to have access to good medicines at relatively low costs for conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. In the Pacific, where the prevalence of diabetes continues to rise, the poor ability to control blood sugar levels leads to much more significant diabetic retinopathy. Training the nurses to help with screening and education around diabetes will also help reduce the prevalence of preventable eye disease.

All in all, it was a great experience for me, and hopefully the eye nurses learned some tips. With the team back in Wanganui helping to raise funds by donating $5 per eye exam while I was away, we have helped raise awareness in our community about how easy it can be to help The Fred Hollows Foundation in their work.