BOSTON—The New England College of Optometry (NECO) welcomed renown experts in health equity, public health and the eyecare industry to their Beacon Street campus for the inaugural Vision Health Equity Summit. The event was an opportunity to hear from health equity advocates about the pressing issues of vision health, how vision loss creates disabilities resulting in further societal inequities, and how to create pathways to a more equitable future. Dr. Howard Purcell, NECO president and CEO, thanked attendees for joining the effort to raise awareness and impact policies that address vision health equity. “Vision is critical to our lives and well-being. It is a key-driver of equity, not just health equity.”
Core to the discussions was the overwhelming need for health care providers across all areas of practice to understand the tragic impact that poor vision health has on patients and their quality of life. As health care costs rise and insurance coverage becomes increasingly complex, vision health is often left out of policy discussions and reforms.
Speakers made it clear that things must change. Dr. Gary Chu, NECO vice president of professional affairs, reminded attendees that helping people see is not just about physical sight. “I’ve learned to see through the lens of students, patients, friends and through my life experience as a Chinese Canadian American.” Dr. Chu urged attendees to see, with their mind’s eye, beyond themselves to better serve their patients, constituents and communities.
Myopia, its increasing prevalence, and treatment costs make it a perfect condition to highlight the issues and importance of vision health equity. Dr. Fuensata Vera-Diaz, OD, PhD, associate professor of optometry and director of research at NECO, discussed the need for research and access to treatments to keep up with the number of individuals affected by myopia. “There is clear evidence of a myopia epidemic, making it the most significant vision threat of the century,” said Dr. Vera-Diaz per the World Health Organization. “With high myopia already being the leading cause of visual impairments in working adults, we are seeing how myopia in children negatively affects them throughout their lives.”
Due to the lack of public awareness and medical knowledge of myopia, people with avoidable vision loss are often unaware treatment options are available, speakers pointed out. For the individuals and families who are aware of and seek treatments, most are met with daunting medical bills and long wait times. Treatments are often not covered by insurance and need consistent application over many years making access cost prohibitive.
The Summit featured a special announcement from CooperVision vice president of professional & government affairs, Dr. Michele Andrews. Dr. Andrews unveiled a pilot initiative to make myopia management more accessible to under-resourced children, beginning in Massachusetts and Chicago. CooperVision is partnering with NECO, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) and the Illinois College of Optometry to offer FDA approved MiSight 1-day soft contact lenses and Paragon CRT orthokeratology contact lenses at no cost for as long as participating children require myopia management, starting in 2024.
“All children deserve accessible, quality eyecare to protect their future eye health. We are leading the conversation to identify long-term solutions to overcome access inequity for kids with myopia,” said Dr. Andrews. ”Hand-in-hand with academic partners who share our vision, this initiative represents a major advancement in addressing the childhood myopia epidemic.” (See separate VMAIL story below in today’s edition about the new CooperVision initiative.)
Following the announcement by event sponsor CooperVision, Michael Curry led a panel discussion that included Monica Vohra, MD, chief medical officer at Dot House Health; Julie Le, OD, chief of eyecare services at Lowell Community Health Center Eye Clinic; Christine Barber, Massachusetts State Representative for the 34th Middlesex; and Amie Shei, PhD, president and CEO of Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts.
Even panelists experienced reminders of their own reasons for committing to address vision health equity. Dr. Vorha recalled her experience as a high myope and how her vision impairment impacted her learning because, if you can’t see, you can’t learn. Representative Barber recalled her early need for vision correction, how it impacted her life, and why she is a vision health advocate.
Dr. Le shared a story about a high myope parent of a patient with myopia telling her that he thought he may not have spent time in prison if he’d had vision intervention. Dr. Shei shared the impact she has seen due to lack of access in Southbridge, Mass. following the closing of American Optical and how children just can’t get care due to the physical lack of access.
This event created connections among individuals who can make change happen. Attendees included representatives from the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, Boston Public Schools, Haverhill Public Schools, US Department of Transportation, Disability Policy Consortium, MassHealth, VSP, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Community Health Clinics, and statisticians, among many others, including NECO faculty and students.
NECO stated it will continue to host Vision Health Equity conversations to lead policy makers to see vision health as a critical component of overall health by telling more personal stories that increase understanding of the issues that affect the people behind the data. Founded in 1894, NECO is the oldest continuously operating optometry school in the U.S.