• Bridging the Gap in Access to Care: 2021 Artemis Awardee Thomas V. Johnson III, MD

    Thomas V. Johnson III, MD, this year’s Artemis Award winner, is recognized for his ongoing passion for medical student and resident education and helping the underserved populations in Baltimore. 

    Since 2014, the Academy’s Senior Ophthalmologist Committee has presented the annual award to a young ophthalmologist who demonstrates the utmost in patient care and goes above and beyond what is expected. 

    Nominations for the award are solicited from societies represented on the Academy’s Council, the supranational ophthalmology societies as well as from academic department chairs and program directors. Dr. Johnson was nominated by Wilmer Eye Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

    Dr. Johnson spoke with YO Info to delve deeper into his Vision Screening in Our Neighborhoods (ViSION) Program — specifically how it works, how he got inspired and what YOs can do to get involved in their own communities. 

    What is the mission of the ViSION Program?

    Dr. Johnson: ViSION is a community service vision screening program run through the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The mission is three-fold: 1) to identify Baltimore city community residents with undiagnosed eye disease; 2) to facilitate clinical evaluation and long-term care for those patients at the Johns Hopkins University Wilmer Eye Institute, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay and; 3) to provide a mentored service-learning opportunity for dedicated medical students who wish to obtain real-world experience in community health screening and clinical ophthalmology.

    How does it work?

    Dr. Johnson: ViSION is driven by an executive board of Johns Hopkins University medical students elected annually. Students are recruited in the fall, when they participate in an information session with the current executive board and a faculty mentor.

    This information session includes a one-hour presentation on general principles of community health screening, the specifics of common eye diseases and the particulars of how ViSION works.

    The student volunteers then undergo vision screening training, which consists of hands-on learning sessions in which they learn how to conduct various screening tests. They also participate in three to four educational sessions throughout the year led by Wilmer faculty who teach in more detail about common eye diseases that will be seen during the actual screenings. Trained students then conduct vision screening events on Saturdays throughout the year.

    Each event is held in conjunction with a local community service organization that identifies city residents in need of eye care and facilitates their participation at the event. These events are always staffed by a trained Wilmer ophthalmologist. 

    Anyone who is screened and “fails” the screening (i.e., has an abnormality that warrants follow-up assessment or care) is given an appointment with a faculty ophthalmologist at the Wilmer Eye Institute for a complete eye exam. (ViSION pays for an Uber/Lyft for those who do not have access to transportation.) For patients who need glasses, Wilmer provides a free pair through our optical shop. 

    For patients who need additional treatment or surgery, they’re referred to one of our numerous financial aid programs, which provide access to free care through funds donated by generous patients.

    What was your inspiration for the program?

    Dr. Johnson: When I was a first-year medical student at Johns Hopkins, I volunteered with a group called Charm City Clinic, now called Charm City Care Connection, which is a faculty-supervised screening clinic. 

    As part of our work in 2010, we conducted a survey of Baltimore community residents to identify what health-related services they most desired but did not have access to. No. 1 was eye care.

    I was already interested in ophthalmology at the time, so I enthusiastically took the reins. I met with Dr. Harry Quigley (one of my longest standing and most cherished mentors) to discuss ideas. It became clear that we would need a fairly intricate infrastructure and cooperation with Wilmer to implement a program in a responsible manner because it would be critical to not only identify eye disease in the people we screen, but also ensure that those people are cared for. 

    Therefore, we decided to make this an independent effort and founded a standalone program. I put together a detailed, step-by-step protocol, and then we wrote grants to obtain funding for equipment and operations.

    My early years working with ViSION demonstrated time and time again how critical vision is to patients’ quality of life and ability to participate in society. We’ve had people come through ViSION who couldn’t find work because their vision was too poor to accomplish even simple tasks.

    For one woman, it turned out that a simple pair of glasses — supplied at no cost — was all she needed to find work as a cashier. We’ve also found numerous people with severe glaucoma, and by providing care, we prevented what would have assuredly been complete blindness.

    Baltimore is a great city, but like any metropolitan area, it has its fair share of underserved communities. These communities experience a disproportionate degree of health maladies, including vision impairment, and by doing the work that ViSION does, we’re able to deeply improve the lives of the people in our very own community.

    What are some of the challenges your team has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic?

    Dr. Johnson: The pandemic completely sidelined our work. Because our screenings involve close contact with Baltimore community residents, we were unable to perform screenings during the 2020-21 academic year.

    This resulted in a backlog of people who needed care but didn’t have insurance or any way to obtain access to eye care; however, we were able to get many of those patients directly sent to Wilmer for care (through pro bono and grant-mediated mechanisms). Fortunately, as of August 2021, we’ve been able to restart screening events, and we’re now working through the many requests that we have from our community partners to hold screenings.

    What are some of the best ways that young ophthalmologists can get involved in helping disadvantaged communities obtain vision care?

    Dr. Johnson: While I am certainly proud of ViSION, it’s worth noting there are also wonderful academic programs that perform vision screening and eye care services at many medical schools throughout the United States. And some YOs may have even participated in such programs during medical school or residency. So, I would encourage YOs to continue to engage with these programs during and after residency. 

    Beyond these programs, there are a number of wonderful national programs in which YOs can get involved that provide care to needy people in local communities. For instance, I’m part of the Academy’s EyeCare America® volunteer program — which offers no-cost medical eye exams and free or discounted medication — and am referred patients for evaluation periodically. 

    YOs who are passionate about giving back should certainly look into EyeCare America as well as other similar subspeciality-specific programs that are administered by our national organizations.

    Note: Join us at the YO Program in New Orleans on Sunday, Nov. 14, where Dr. Johnson will be recognized as the Academy’s 2021 Artemis Award recipient. He will also be fȇted at the Orbital Gala on Sunday evening at the House of Blues.