Just a few weeks ago, a mass of 2013 optometry graduates left the nest of school and entered the “real world” of optometry. SUNY College of Optometry’s commencement speaker, Melvin Shipp, OD, PhD, immediate past president of the American Public Health Association (APHA), imparted advice and instructions to the graduates: we are privileged to have become vision and health care providers, and it is our duty to do good for our communities. The weight of his counsel is greater upon graduation and throughout our careers, but applies early in optometry school as well.
To give more insight on how and why optometry students can get involved in public health, we interviewed Gregory Wolfe, OD, MPH, FAAO and Vision Care Section Chair of APHA. Dr. Wolfe is a graduate of Pennsylvania College of Optometry and completed a residency in ocular disease and low vision at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago. He subsequently earned an MPH from the University of Illinois School of Public Health, in the Health Policy and Administration Division. He currently serves as an attending optometrist in the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System in Tucson. He was also recently appointed to serve on the National Eye Institute’s National Eye Health Education Planning Committee.
Q: How did you get involved in APHA?
A: I became involved in APHA when I was an optometry student. I had just finished the public health course at my optometry school and I wanted to learn more about how various aspects of the health care system interact. The more I learned, the more I realized that optometry has potential to affect public health beyond my singular exam room.
Q: Why is it important for optometry to be involved in the public health and APHA?
A: Our healthcare system has a multitude of facets that are dependent on each other. Being a member of APHA assures that optometry is woven into the fabric of our healthcare delivery system.
This is even more important now with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Since APHA is the world’s oldest and largest organization of public health professionals, lawmakers look to APHA to provide Congressional testimony. Having an independent organization like APHA support health policy that improves the visual health of our nation can be a tremendous asset. For example, APHA’s Children’s Health Policy for the United States calls for vision care for all children. The American Optometric Association was able to use this APHA policy when they met with officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to assure that children’s vision care was a defined benefit in the Affordable Care Act. This is a perfect example of how public health policy shapes our profession.
Q: What does the Vision Care section do?
A: The Vision Care Section is an important advocate for vision care issues that affect populations throughout the world by promoting health and well-being with emphasis on vision and eye health through interdisciplinary partnerships. Additionally, the Vision Care Section serves as an advocate to ensure equality in, and access to, vision and eye health care, and to ensure inclusion of vision in public health policy. To date, over 30 VCS-sponsored resolutions are now fully supported by the APHA, all of which have been instrumental in federal and state legislative efforts. Recent resolutions range from improving childhood eye care, to increasing access to vision rehabilitation, to eye care in disaster preparedness, to improving access to vision care in community health centers. The Vision Care Section provides an opportunity for all groups involved in vision care to join forces, guide policy and effect change.
Q: How can optometry students be more public health-minded?
A: The educational and clinical demands on optometry students are significant. It’s easy to understand why the most important thing on optometry students’ minds is the next test, boards, clinical evaluations etc. Although all of these things are critical, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Ask yourself these questions: How does what I do affect the health of my community? Is what I’m doing effective? Why am I doing this? How can I be more effective at what I do? How do I shape my profession? By continually asking yourself these questions, and acting on them, you’re improving public health!
Q: Do you need a M.P.H. to join APHA?
A: No, absolutely no! Optometrists, by the nature of our profession, are public health professionals. Many active members and leaders of APHA do not have a formal public health degree. The only requirement is that you have interest in public health.
Q: How do I join APHA?
A: Joining is easy on APHA’s website: www.apha.org Also, more information can be found on the Vision Care Section’s website: www.apha.org/membergroups/sections/aphasections/vision