Fact: There are 39 million people in the world who are blind. In addition, there are 246 million more people who are visually impaired. Yet 80 percent of blindness is avoidable — that is, preventable, treatable, or curable. Not surprisingly, about 90 percent of the blind live in the developing world.
Dr. Abbott speaks with YOs during the session in Orlando.
These numbers are a sobering reality. But I, along with a group of international experts who joined us in the YO lounge at this year’s Academy Annual Meeting, remain hopeful and optimistic for this reason — YOU!
Our generation of YOs realizes that, through improved technology and other resources, the world is getting smaller and more interconnected. More YOs have expressed an interest in global health than those ophthalmologists who have preceded us. Many of us have already had international experience in medical school and perhaps in residency. We’ve traveled abroad and seen the faces of those who are needlessly blind. That may even be why you chose ophthalmology.
Now that we have the skills and are nearly done with training or are in our first few years of practice, we want to know how we can make an impact on the global burden of blindness. And who better to answer this question than those who have made global health a significant part of their careers?
At the first-ever “Meet with an International Expert” event at this year’s Annual Meeting, we asked questions, shared stories and found mentors. Participants, many of them leaders in our field, shared a number of ways they’ve addressed global blindness.
- Improving education: Richard L. Abbott, MD, the president of the Academy, shared about his extensive travels and work to improve ophthalmic education and clinical care around the world.
- Developing physician leaders: Michael Brennan, MD, a past president of the Academy, discussed his interest in developing global physician leaders. He is particularly involved in Latin America through the Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology and helped lead the Academy’s Task Force on Haiti Recovery. He has also been instrumental in the global expansion of the Academy’s Leadership Development Program. In 2009, Dr. Brennan was honored for his worked with physicians in Iraq to improve medical education.
- Living abroad: John Cropsey, MD, shared his powerful stories as a young ophthalmologist living and working in Tenwek Hospital, Kenya, for the last two years. He and his family will soon be moving to Burundi to teach and work at Hope Africa University Medical School.
- Short-term projects: Linda Lawrence, MD, a pediatric ophthalmologist from Salina, Kan., discussed the unique challenges she has encountered in treating children in the developing world. In 2010, Dr. Lawrence received one of the Academy’s Outstanding Humanitarian Service Awards after she was nominated by the YO Committee.
Matthew Oliva, MD, a cornea specialist in a group practice in Oregon, spoke about his work addressing cataract and corneal blindness in the Himalayas. Dr. Oliva travels a couple of times a year and serves on the board of the Himalayan Cataract Project. He is also involved in international eye banking.
- Establishing eye banks: David Paton, MD, established one of the first eye banks in the Middle East. He served as the first medical director of the Kind Khaled Eye Specialist Hospital in Saudi Arabia and is the founder of ORBIS, the flying eye hospital.
Finally, some of us even had lunch with Larry Schwab, MD, who literally wrote the book on Eye Care in Developing Nations
, fueled by his decades of experience in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
If there was an overarching theme of the session, it was that there are many ways to go global — from living abroad to going for short medical missions to collaborating with international ophthalmology associations and teaching abroad at hospitals and universities to even starting your own non-profit organization. No matter what you choose, you can make international work a part of your career.
Let those numbers on the global burden of blindness serve as a call to action and motivate you to join this community of international experts to be part of the solution. By working together, we can eliminate avoidable blindness in our lifetime.
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About the author: Grace Sun, MD, is a comprehensive ophthalmologist at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and is the associate program director of the residency program. She has a strong interest in global health and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua. She is currently establishing clinical, teaching and research collaborations in Africa at Weill Bugando Medical College in Mwanza, Tanzania. Dr. Sun is on the Young Ophthalmologist International Subcommittee.