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Bridging the gap in Aboriginal eye care

Darwin, Australia,11 April 2014: Optometrists are easily found in metropolitan areas; however, Australia still remains severely underserviced in its remote regions.Locum optometrists and regional eye health workers all help to provide essential eye care services for Aboriginal communities through the provision of a culturally appropriate and practical service model used in remote locations.

Brien Holden Vision Institute commenced contracting locum optometrists through the Aboriginal Vision Program in 1999, in order to help service areas of New South Wales (NSW). In the Northern Territory (NT), the locum program started in 2006, targeting one area and later increasing service locations after positive response. The contracts are often short-term placements established within Aboriginal Medical Services and remote community health centres. Permanent eye care services by resident optometrists are only available in the major centres, with very remote communities relying on a fly-in-fly-out model for visiting eye care practitioners.

Locum optometrist for the Institute, Jaelyn McComas has been working for the NT Aboriginal Vision Program for the past 12 months. Graduating from optometry in 2009, Jaelyn was familiar with the Public Health Division of the Institute and has been involved in local eye care programs. As a locum working for the Institute, Jaelyn has visited over 12 Aboriginal communities, consisting of two five-day clinics, primarily in the Greater Darwin region of the Top End.

“I’m interested in public health. I want to provide eye care to people in need and I feel good knowing I can make a small difference. I think this would be an enriching career opportunity for any optometrist to experience working remote and in Aboriginal communities," said Jaelyn.

Jaelyn provided these visiting services while living in Darwin, so it was ideal for continuity of care for a Darwin optometrist to visit communities in the region. Since relocating to Melbourne, Jaelyn continues to work as a visiting locum for one to two week trips in the NT.

“Working as a locum optometrist in remote settings has been a rewarding experience. The opportunity to contribute towards eye care services in remote health makes for meaningful work. Our patients are appreciative of the services we provide and they enjoy ordering new glasses after their eye exam. It feels good to be a part of the team at the health centre working towards a shared goal. I have enjoyed returning to the same health centres to provide follow-up clinics, as we get to know the members of the community,” said Jaelyn.

Health workers and regional eye health workers are another integral part in delivering eye care within Aboriginal Health Services. Regional Eye Health Coordinator Nadia Clements commenced her career in the Barkly region before joining Danila Dilba Aboriginal Health Services, coordinating outreach clinics and service delivery across the Greater Darwin Region of the NT, in partnership with the Institute.

“I’ve been involved in eye care for over three years and before Darwin I was in the Barkly region as assistant coordinator looking after the clinical visits to remote communities, providing administrative support and ensuring patients made it to their appointments. By receiving regular eye checks and being eye health aware, patients can enjoy the best possible lifestyle and continue providing for their families, working, studying, hunting, weaving and painting. And by having regular access to eye care services and glasses, quality of life and eye health can be maintained,” said Nadia.

Feedback from optometrists who participate in the locum program indicate a number of key motivations for their involvement in remote work. A leading reason was the desire to use their professional skills in areas that are disadvantaged or lack the level of access to eye health services available in the cities. Many of these optometrists have experience in or exposure to public health optometry, either within Australia or overseas.

Working out of remote health clinics with portable equipment set up in rooms that are not designed for eye examinations or lacking access to patients’ previous clinical information can be challenging. It is important for these practitioners and eye health workers to be flexible and resourceful or creative in adjusting to temporary set ups for clinical consultations.

“I am passionate about eye health and I’m continuously learning on the job. It’s a very challenging and rewarding career,” said Nadia.  

Locum optometrists and health care works contribute significantly to Aboriginal eye health, providing positive outcomes for their patients and regular access to eye care. The Aboriginal Vision Program would not be possible without the ongoing support and collaboration from locum optometrists, Aboriginal Medical Services and funding from the Visiting Optometrist Scheme through the Australian Government.

To view our photo gallery of images from the Aboriginal Vision Program, Northern Territory please click here

 

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