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Vision Care from a Distance
By Hilary Gibson

(Page 1 of 2)

We depend on it everyday. We expect it to be there for us and to respond the minute we need it. It's something that we all take for granted until it goes noticeably wrong. In fact, you're using it right now to read this's your eye sight. In the United States, an estimated 80 million people have eye diseases which can potentially cause blindness, another 3 million have low vision, 1.1 million are legally blind, and 200,000 are considered severely visually impaired. The development or disintegrate of one’s vision can forever affect the way they learn, communicate, and work, as well as influence their health and quality of life. Another sobering fact is that visual impairment is consider to be one of the ten most frequent causes of disability in the United States. Something else which may be taken for granted is the ability to easily access much needed eye care. When a caregiver and their loved one reside in a metropolitan area, the distance they may travel to get to an eye care specialist, as well as the length of time it may take to get there can be much shorter than for their rural counterparts.

Of the two types of eye care specialists - optometrists and ophthalmologists - optometrists (doctors of optometry who give specialized eye exams in order to detect and/or correct vision problems) are geographically well distributed and are located throughout many of America’s rural areas. Most of the ophthalmologists (doctors who perform eye surgery to correct or arrest particular vision disorders and impairments) are usually located in and around urban and suburban areas. The eye examinations which optometrists perform can determine if someone is exhibiting signs of a pre-existing or present condition which could cause visual impairment or possible blindness. If an optometrist finds a situation that needs more extensive and specialized medical attention, they will then refer a patient to an ophthalmologist for treatment and possible surgery.

Dr. John Whitener, OD, MPH, an Optometrist who worked for many years at the American Optometric Association in Washington, DC, says, “People put off eye exams until some sort of permanent damage has already been done, especially those residing in rural areas since they have the added barriers of distance and finances keeping them from receiving proper eye care and exams. Most vision problems can be prevented. In fact, 90% of diabetic blindness can be prevented by early detection and treatment.” With the knowledge of the obstacles that rural caregivers and their loved ones experience in trying to receive eye care, the Federal Government has created two programs that may help them receive much needed care. Both the and VISION USA programs hope that people in low income, rural areas will benefit from early detection of eye diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, cataract, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration through free eye exams.

The program came about from a 1979 Surgeon General's Report entitled “Healthy People,” as well as from the “Healthy People 2000: National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives” which was a follow-up report to the original conducted 21 years earlier. Both of these reports established health goals on a national level, and have served as the basis for the development of state and community plans. The encourages diverse community groups to combine their efforts and work as a team in order to improve the health of those around them. The program wants to achieve certain health objectives over the first decade of the new century, including for the first time vision care and preventative eye care maintenance as a part of these goals. The program now addresses visual impairment due to eye disease and refractive error and includes regular eye examinations for children and adults, vision screenings for pre-school children, injury prevention, and vision rehabilitation. Many states and communities use the framework to create guidelines for local health policies and vision programs. People who would like to find out more information regarding local chapters that provide affordable and/or free eye care, as well as locating the nearest doctor of optometry, can contact 800-262-3947 or go online to

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