When young ophthalmologist Meron Haile, MD, joined over 400 colleagues for the Academy’s Mid-Year Forum 2018 in April, she wasn’t just advocating for her patients and her profession — she was continuing the legacy of the late founding chairman of the department of ophthalmology at the Howard University College of Medicine, Robert A. Copeland Jr., MD.
A Passionate Patient Advocate
Dr. Copeland dedicated his career to closing disparities in health care and growing the ranks of minorities in his profession. He famously took all his ophthalmology residents with him to Capitol Hill every year to participate in Congressional Advocacy Day as part of the Academy’s Advocacy Ambassador Program.
Dr. Copeland’s impact on his profession was such that when he died unexpectedly two years ago at age 60, his ophthalmology colleagues on the Academy’s OPHTHPAC Committee created the Robert A. Copeland Jr., MD, Advocacy Education Fund — a permanent endowment that covers the expenses for one resident to attend Mid-Year Forum annually and participate via the Advocacy Ambassador Program.
The First Copeland Fellow
Dr. Haile, a San Francisco native, was chosen by the National Medical Association - Ophthalmology Section and the OPHTHPAC Committee as the first Copeland Fellow because she is forging a career path much like Dr. Copeland’s. She is chief resident at California Pacific Medical Center’s Department of Ophthalmology/Lions Eye Clinic, where she provides high-quality care to people who don’t have insurance or who have limited incomes. She’s also interested in international medicine and hopes to help build an eye clinic in her parent’s homeland, Ethiopia.
As a first-year student at the University of California, San Francisco Medical School, Dr. Haile was considering endocrinology, not ophthalmology. But at the end of her first year, she began looking for a medical mission trip for the summer. The specialty didn’t matter; she was looking for any mission work that would take her to Ethiopia. She joined Thomas M. Lietman, MD, and his team and worked for six weeks in a clinic treating a wide range of eye diseases. She was hooked.
“It was inspiring to see how much patients’ lives were changed by surgery,” Dr. Haile said. “They were so grateful. They could see again, and work again, and take care of themselves and their families.”
But it was also frustrating for her to see people come to clinic too late, when their disease was more difficult to treat. She experiences the same frustrations today in San Francisco as she did in Ethiopia two years ago. Many of her minority patients at the Lions Eye Clinic come to her when their eye diseases are more advanced, and she cannot restore their vision, only help them hold onto the diminished vision they have left.
The Power of Diversity
Dr. Haile believes that one way to help reduce health care disparities is to increase the number of minority ophthalmologists. She said that upon walking in an exam room, she can see the difference it makes to have a doctor who looks like you. Patients’ bodies relax. They communicate more. They trust more.
Ophthalmology can be more diverse. African Americans make up 12.8 percent of the general population, but only 2 percent of ophthalmologists. Hispanic and Latino Americans make up 16.3 percent of the population, but only 4.6 percent of ophthalmologists.1
Dr. Haile also will apply her passion and determination to the Minority Ophthalmology Mentoring program, a partnership between the Academy and the Association of University Professors of Ophthalmology. The program exposes medical students, residents and fellows to role models, skills needed in medical practice and teaching, research opportunities and mentoring. The goal is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in ophthalmology residency training programs so that they are more reflective of their numbers in the general population.
Just like Dr. Copeland, Dr. Haile is focused on deepening the profession’s understanding of disparities, broadening its international reach and advocating for patients.
As Dr. Copeland once said, “If you do not advocate for what is morally right, then others will determine our fate.”
1 AMA Physician Masterfile 2010 Data. “Physician Characteristics and Distribution in the US,” 2012 Edition.
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About the author: Susanne Medeiros is director of public relations for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.