Specsavers Mill Park optometrist An Vu explains how her personal battle with myopia inspired her to apply for the first Specsavers Vietnam Outreach Program, and how vastly different the ophthalmic landscape is in Vietnam compared with Australia and New Zealand.

I grew up in Vietnam, so I am aware of the limited access to ocular healthcare across the country. My own myopia went undiagnosed while I was living in Vietnam, even though I was raised in one of the country’s largest and most developed cities. The significant impact that spectacles have had on my quality of life is one of the primary reasons I pursued a career in optometry, and it’s also the reason I decided to apply for this outreach trip. The program offered an opportunity to develop and share my clinical skills with the health professionals in Tiền Giang, as well as a chance to experience screening for school children, some of whom have never had an eye test.

One of the biggest surprises I had during this trip was discovering the vast segregation between refractive care and ocular healthcare in Vietnam. In Australia, we have optometrists who provide holistic eye care – screening for ocular diseases as well as providing patients with corrective lenses. Many of the professionals in Vietnam who provide the community with spectacles do not simultaneously check for binocular vision or ocular health issues, meaning many diseases can go undiagnosed, even if the patient has gone through a routine eye test. A patient in Vietnam has to go through numerous appointments and various professionals before they can have comprehensive eye care. This is costly in both time and finance, severely limiting access to healthcare for patients with a low socio-economic background.

Optometry is a relatively new concept in Vietnam, with the country’s first set of optometrists graduating in 2014. Many of the health professionals in Vietnam have never had contact with an optometrist. The outreach trip was a fantastic opportunity for fellow participant Tuong Nghiem and I to share the multifaceted roles that optometrists play, and how future optometrists in Vietnam can aid in the provision of eye care in the country.

Through the outreach, we were also able to learn of the difficulties that healthcare professionals face in remote regions such as Tiền Giang. Aside from limited equipment and human resources, the eye doctors in Vietnam also face systematic constraints in the organisation of eye screenings and referral pathways for patients who require specialist care. At times, the patients themselves can pose challenges as many present with severe refractive errors and ocular health issues – yet few have access to continued eye care to monitor their conditions.

The outreach enabled Tuong and I to experience some of these issues firsthand, further reinforcing to us the crucial role The Fred Hollows Foundation has in Vietnam’s eyecare industry; the organisation helps facilitate many of the screenings and training, which provide accessible care. Assisting The Fred Hollows Foundation with its Vietnam Child Eye Care Project in Tiền Giang also allowed me to fully appreciate how closely the vision and values of Specsavers are aligned with those of The Fred Hollows Foundation. They both share a mutual belief that affordable and quality eye care should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their background.

The Specsavers Community Program is a major initiative implemented in Specsavers stores across Australia and New Zealand. A portion of every pair of glasses sold is donated to either The Fred Hollows Foundation or the store’s selected local charity. This has led to millions of dollars of donations which help pay for projects like The Fred Hollows Foundation’s Vietnam Child Eye Care Project. Being able to physically assist with a project that our Australian customers had helped to fund was inspiring.

Aside from this outreach to Vietnam, the Specsavers Community Program has also collaborated with The Fred Hollows Foundation in numerous projects both locally and abroad, including collaborating with indigenous artist Langaliki Langaliki to create a limited edition fundraising frame to ‘Close the Gap’ and erase the disparity in ocular health outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. Our commitment to the Specsavers Community Program means that every pair of glasses dispensed has a real impact on lives beyond the patient’s.

Personally, this experience has been rewarding on numerous fronts. The outreach was fulfilling, and it posed a different kind of challenge to my clinical skills. It taught me to be adaptable while striving to provide consistent quality in my services. The skill-sharing sessions with the Vietnamese health professionals allowed me to develop skills in public presentation, as well as in compiling academic resources to suit specific audiences. The experience also showed me Vietnam in a whole new light, one completely removed from my former viewpoints as a child, as a resident, and as a tourist. I have never felt more engaged, challenged, or fulfilled by my birth country.

The Specsavers Vietnam Outreach Program took place in Tiền Giang from 1-9 April 2017. An and Specsavers Sunbury graduate optometrist Tuong Nghiem helped train doctors in the latest eye-testing processes and conducted vision screening for school children as part of The Fred Hollows Foundation’s Vietnam Child Eye Care Project.