Jennifer Gersbeck has a tough gig. As CEO of Vision 2020 Australia, it’s her job to bring together disparate groups who represent eye health and vision care, create a collective message, then lobby governments for change. There’s no doubt Jennifer is making a difference, and as a result of her professional achievements, she’s been named as Trustee on the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness, alongside Professors Brien Holden and Hugh Taylor, as well as The Fred Hollows Foundation’s Brian Doolan.
Hardly romantic, but Jennifer Gersbeck spotted the ad for CEO of Vision 2020 Australia back in 2004 while on a weekend away with her husband to celebrate their wedding anniversary.
The global initiative, Vision 2020 had been jointly established by the World Health Organisation and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness back in 1999. Since 2000, Vision 2020 Australia had been an active participant.
“I felt the role was a perfect fit for me – bringing together my years of experience in the healthcare sector with my senior management experience in a non-government organisation. I was also attracted to the clear vision of the organisation – a vision that was really achievable,” said Ms. Gersbeck.
It is frustrating when eye health is seen as just one small body part – not as important as other chronic,life-threatening conditions
At the time, she was working in a senior marketing role with World Vision, having commenced her career in health promotion for the Victorian Government while at the same time undertaking tertiary studies.
“I didn’t have the opportunity to go directly from school to university, so I joined the public service and worked my way through the various clerical/administration levels in departments of education, health and community services. During this time I developed a passion for politics and social justice and a healthy interest in the power of marketing and communications. Over the next 10 years I continued working while I studied part-time at Monash University. By the time I completed my studies I was managing corporate communications for the Victorian Government Department of Health, Housing and Community Services, but I was ready to move away from government and the healthcare sector. I spent the next four years in senior marketing roles at World Vision Australia and realised the non-government sector was where I wanted to be,” she said.
Ms. Gersbeck spent four years with World Vision before she felt ready to make her next career move into a leadership position. “This position (at Vision 2020 Australia) offered me the opportunity to lead an organisation… I must admit I never imagined being at Vision 2020 Australia for 10 years, but I have been constantly inspired by the people I have met and been rewarded by the organisation’s many achievements during this time. I also enjoy a challenge – and there have been plenty of them!”
Getting Eye Health Highon the Agenda
One of the greatest challenges has been to get eye health high on the agenda in politics. “It is frustrating when eye health is seen as just one small body part – not as important as other chronic, life-threatening conditions,” said Ms. Gersbeck.
“Policy makers often don’t appreciate the impact of vision loss on an individual, their family and community. More importantly, they do not realise that around 80 per cent of blindness and vision loss is preventable or treatable. That’s the role of Vision 2020 Australia – to make decision makers understand that eye health needs to be a priority, not just because of the impact, but because it is a public health problem that can be fixed – and in many cases quite easily – with a simple pair of glasses or cataract surgery. There is, of course, the economic argument – in Australia AU$16 billion annually – and in the region avoidable blindness costs developing countries around $49 billion (in 2009 USD) per year in lost economic activity – a staggering figure!”1
The prevalence of blindness and vision impairment – both globally and in every region – is declining, which Ms. Gersbeck says is the most powerful evidence that investing in eye health and vision care can produce positive outcomes for communities in Australia and across the region. In 2010, there were nearly 100 million fewer people who were blind or vision impaired than would have been expected considering population increase and the increase in the total population living beyond 50-years old.2
“Progress is being made, but more needs to be done,” said Ms. Gersbeck.
One of Ms. Gersbeck’s first significant achievements with Vision 2020 Australia occurred in 2005 when Health Ministers across Australia endorsed the National Framework for Action to Promote Eye Health and Prevent Avoidable Blindness and Vision Loss. This led to the Australian Government committing new funding to implement activities aimed at preventing avoidable blindness and improving vision care.
The first representative nationwide study of the prevalence of eye conditions in Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Additionally funding has been secured to undertake a National Eye Health Survey – the first representative nationwide study of the prevalence of eye conditions in Australia. Funded by the Victorian Government, the Vision Initiative – a coordinated public eye health program – continues to raise awareness of eye health and vision care among health and other professional sectors and the general community. This initiative, Ms. Gersbeck says “is definitely one other state governments should consider implementing”.
She said she’s proud of the difference these achievements are making.
“These important policy and funding breakthroughs ensure that eye health and vision care services are targeted, efficient and effective,” she said. “This, in turn, makes a real difference to the lives of people in Australia by reducing preventable blindness and enabling greater participation in the community of people who are blind or vision impaired.
“I’m also very proud of what has been achieved in our region. Back in September 2007 a delegation of Australian NGOs, led by Vision 2020 Australia, presented a plan to both the government and opposition to eliminate avoidable blindness in Asia and the Pacific. The following year the Australian Government announced the Avoidable Blindness Initiative – a AU$45 million investment, with a subsequent allocation of $21 million in 2012.”
“There is no doubt that enormous progress has been made in the region and this has been achieved through partnership and collaboration – both between our members and with the Australian Government. I believe it is this powerful combination of the sector and government truly working together that has resulted in the quantum leap we have achieved and I’m excited by future possibilities,” said Ms. Gersbeck.
But there’s still more to do and with the 2020 deadline looming, Ms. Gersbeck is keen to keep the efforts rolling.
The National Framework Implementation Plan identifies three priority areas: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health; preventing eye disease associated with chronic conditions (particularly diabetes); and improving the evidence base.
“We are striving to secure an investment from the Australian Government to support priorities under the National Framework Implementation Plan and to continue the vital work of the Vision 2020 Australia Global Consortium in Asia and the Pacific. Our work to improve the ability of Australians who are blind or vision impaired to participate in the community also continues,” said Ms. Gersbeck.
“As the National Eye Health Survey gets underway, we are working to ensure the additional funding required to complete the survey is secured. This ground-breaking survey will contribute greatly to improving the evidence base.”
Together with Diabetes Australia, Vision 2020 Australia is facilitating the development of a proposal to be submitted to Government aimed at reducing vision loss from eye disease due to diabetes in the Australian population through improved early detection and intervention.
To address the priority area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health, Ms. Gersbeck and her team have brought the sector together to work on a collaborative proposal identifying the additional funding required to close the gap for vision for Indigenous Australians.
Additionally, Vision 2020 Australia continues to advocate for greater linkage between health, disability and aged care, to maximise continuity of support for people who are blind or vision impaired.
“In consultation with our Independence and Participation Committee, we are promoting the need for holistic specialist assessments in the National Disability Insurance Scheme and illustrating sector capacity pressures related to the Scheme,” said Ms. Gersbeck.
She said that following extensive consultation with members through its Global Committee, Vision 2020 Australia has submitted a funding proposal to the Australian Government to enable the Global Consortium to continue its vital work in the region.
“This is a challenging time for international development – even more so with the further recent cuts to Australia’s aid budget,” said Ms. Gersbeck. “In collaboration with our members, our advocacy efforts are directed towards key Ministers of the Government, Australian Parliamentarians and government officials working in the departments of Health, Social Services and Foreign Affairs and Trade.”
2020 may be just around the corner but Jennifer has no plans to pull back on the organisation’s efforts. “Vision 2020 Australia will exist for as long as members consider it to be of value,” she said.
Passionate About Social Justice
Ms. Gersbeck said her life experience has driven her to make a difference to the world around her.
“I have always felt very fortunate and have seen a lot of injustice in the world. I am a passionate supporter of human rights, social justice and poverty alleviation – all have shaped my life and my work choices. I have experienced many life-changing moments that have strengthened my commitment to make a difference and inspired me to work tirelessly to achieve shared goals and improve the lives of thousands of people.”
She said if there was just one thing she could facilitate in terms of Australian and the region’s eye health it would be to achieve more cohesive advocacy.
“Organisations working together – not competing with each other or duplicating efforts. So much can be achieved when working in partnership –with trust, respect and self-awareness of what contribution each organisation can make to achieve shared goals.”
1. The Fred Hollows Foundation Investing in Vision report, 2014
2. Global Burden of Disease report, World Health Organisation, 2010
Among Global Leaders
Jennifer Gersbeck was recently named as a Trustee on the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) board. She joins other distinguished leaders from high profile international eye health organisations including Brian Doolan, CEO of The Fred Hollows Foundation, Professor Brien Holden, head of the Brien Holden Vision Institute and founding member Professor Hugh Taylor, President of the International Council of Ophthalmology.
The Board welcomed Ms. Gersbeck’s past 10 years of experience at the forefront of Vision 2020 Australia
In 2008, she won a regional IAPB Award at the eighth General Assembly of the IAPB held in Buenos Aires,