What You Need to Know Before Going on an Optometry Mission Trip

Quick Tips for Mission TripsWing of an airplane flying above the clouds. people looks at the sky from the window of the plane.

Many students go on mission trips over the summer break. These trips are organized by many groups, including RAM, FCO, and SVOSH. Students travel around the country and around the world to pop-up clinics. The students and doctors treat patients who could not afford or obtain optometric care otherwise. Whether you’re going on your first trip or you’re a seasoned globe-trotter, we hope that these tips give you some eye-opening insight into the patients and situations you may encounter.

20/20 may not always be the goal

We always want our patients to be able to see and feel their best. A mission trip is no exception. Though we strive for 20/20 vision, we may not be able to attain that goal always on our mission trips. However, it may not be as important as you think. Your patient may have underlying pathology, irreversible or idiopathic damage to visual structures. The limitation of donated glasses and lenses may mean that we have to do the best with what we have.

Brush up on your retinoscopy, ophthalmoscopy and trial lens refractionTrial Lenses

Technical skills become essential when dealing with makeshift clinics in remote locations. Make sure your brush up on retinoscopy and trial lens refraction in particular. Remember, often the biggest way we can change someone’s life is with an updated or new glasses prescription. Ophthalmoscopy is also crucial in evaluating the health of the optic nerve and macula. This can be life-changing for detecting or monitoring ocular disease.

Make an effort to learn the language and the culture of the place you are going

I can’t stress this one enough. Whether it is brushing up on your high school Spanish or attempting to learn a new language altogether, it helps to know a few words and phrases in the language of the country you are traveling to. Apps like Duolingo or online courses can improve your confidence and familiarity with a new language. Researching relevant cultural customs can also prove useful and interesting. Typically, the people of the region will appreciate your curiosity for their culture and willingness to participate.

Familiarize yourself with the ocular and systemic diseases common in that region

Across different regions of the world, there are variances in the eye and vision conditions prevalent in that region. In many equatorial countries, patients are exposed to a high amount of sunlight. Exposure can result in  cataracts, macular degeneration, pingecula and pterygium, and eye and lid cancers. In Caribbean and African countries, glaucoma can be a widespread concern. In many developing and developed regions, diabetes is emerging as a major health concern that affects the eyes. It is important to know what is endemic to the region to prepare effectively.

Know what existing infrastructure exists in regards to vision and general healthcare

Are there primary eye care doctors or ophthalmologists in the region? If not, how far away are they? What are the waiting times and costs for ocular surgery? What access do people have to healthcare? When was the last time a mission clinic came to the area? These are questions you may ask before you head over to a particular locale, to get an idea of the level of education and access to care that the people in the reason have.

Tackle problems creatively

At a mission clinic, there are many things that can go wrong. It is important to have a proactive attitude and come up with creative solutions for the myriad of problems that can arise. Quick thinking, adaptability and flexibility will take you far in improving both clinical and patient care. If you don’t have these skills already, be prepared to learn them and master them on the spot. Consult with your peers and supervisors, and see how these problems have been tackled in the past or in other mission trips.

Make connections, and become a part of the communityShaking Hands

Just because you are somewhere for a short while doesn’t mean you aren’t a part of the community when you are there. Patients expect and encourage you to share in local customs and traditions while you are there. Cultural sensitivity and mutual respect ensures that you will gain a lot more than just clinical experience on your mission trip.

Dress for success – and functionality!

With weather changes and often rough working conditions, you have to be able to get down and dirty during your eye exam. Closed toe shoes or sneakers, waterproof pants and comfortable, loose clothing will ensure your comfort through the course of a long day. Take care to avoid being too flashy or fancy. This may be considered insensitive and attract the wrong attention, especially in areas that are poorer and more remote.

Be prepared for disaster!

It’s always a good idea to carry around backup medications, glasses or contacts, a copy of your passport, and other important documents. Travel insurance, health insurance and a list of emergency contacts are a must. You never know what may go wrong. It is advised to be prepared for the most difficult of situations.

Have a blast!Sunset Through Truck Rear View Mirror on the Highway

Being in a new place and helping hundreds of patients can be exciting as it is meaningful. Make sure you have a good time in clinic. Help your patients to the best of your knowledge and ability. Don’t forget to get rest, eat well, and explore the surrounding areas in your downtime. Bringing eyecare to underserved areas just may teach you the lessons you need to take back into your quotidian optometry life.

Thanks for reading, follow me @drserenehappy on Instagram/Twitter to stay updated with my mission trip adventures!

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