Helping To Serve The Underserved In Optometry

VOSHWhen the Dean of your optometry school sends out an email to the entire student body titled, “Call to Action,” you tend not to ignore that one and put it in the junk pile. Now as students, we have more power to change legislation in our profession than we are aware, but gaining access to that power can be difficult. Thus, when an influential school brings a matter or matters to light, I think that warrants some action on behalf of the students.

The focus of the email was centered on two issues: the first concerning the National Health Service Corps, and the second on the expansion of residency programs through the Veteran’s Administration (H.R. 1688). Although both topics are of huge interest to me, I would like to take some time to focus on the first.

The National Health Service Corps Improvement Act (HR 1312 and S 898) seeks to gain access for optometry to a scholarship program that can offer students incentive to work in underserved areas of the country. Optometry was eliminated from this program in 2002 and is a major setback in improving visual health in medically underserved areas. As a student who grew up in a rural part of Nevada where access to health services can be very limited, this act grabbed my attention immediately.

Though I grew up in a rural area in Nevada, I at least was fortunate enough to be located in one of the larger towns and had access to all the necessary health services. There are many much smaller towns in Nevada that range from being at least an hour to four hours away from any of these services. I have had the opportunity to work at a local optometrist’s office in my hometown that has an in-house lab, and we are able to produce glasses for patients usually the same day as their appointment. We see countless patients that have driven hours with their whole family to see our optometrist and then pick up their glasses later on that day before they head out of town. Such a service is invaluable to them because they have no access to optometry where they live. This has really impacted me as a future optometrist and supports the need for optometry to be included in the National Health Service Corps Improvement Act.

As I sat at work the other day and read the logistics of this act, I brought it up to my practice manager and the practicing optometrist. With a little more research and a couple phone calls, we discovered that there are frontrunners within the state already trying to establish a medical service corps site in a more central rural area in Nevada. The hope is that it will be a functional site by 2016 with physicians, nurses, and dentists. With the help of the National Health Service Corps Improvement Act, optometry could be added to this list.

To say that this had all escalated would be an understatement. Something that seemed so abstract to me, simple written in a mass email, was quickly becoming a reality that could have an incredible impact in my home state. I sat there conversing with my bosses about all the benefits that this medical site could have, not only for the residents in that town, but also for students like myself who are paying their way through school. I have always entertained the idea of working in underserved rural areas after I graduate. I know that I can make the biggest impact while I’m young and have the ability to reach out to those who need it most. To be able to do this, plus have the opportunity to be part of loan repayment program, seems almost to be good to be true. It’s even more unbelievable that I won’t be the only student that can benefit from this type of program. This is a federal act, meaning there could be areas in every single state that could use our help, just as much as we can use theirs. It seems like a slam-dunk, a no brainer, and we should raise our voices and support this act.

I know this has been long winded, but if you skip through this whole article just to get the main point it would be to contact your state representatives and urge them to support the National Health Service Corps Improvement Act in Congress and to make it their mission to get it passed. There is a lot of legislation that doesn’t affect us as students right this second, but this is something that will. It is really up to us to change how the underserved have access to such a critical primary health profession like optometry.

My hope for those of you reading this is that you will:

  • Go directly to your state official’s website.
  • Find the most efficient way to contact your state representatives.
  • Need some help for what to say? This link has a form letter that is ready for you to sign your name and then send away! Click here!

Thanks for reading!

Kallie Kappes

Southern California College of Optometry

Doctor of Optometry Candidate 2018

AOSA trustee-elect

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