Accessible and equitable healthcare is at the heart of the Australian College of Optometry (ACO), which over the years has built a strong history of working collaboratively with like-minded organisations to deliver care to vulnerable populations in the community.
Since 2013, the ACO has worked with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) Victoria to deliver a much-needed mobile eye care service directly to rural communities across the state.
Together, they liaise with local health organisations and provide bulk-billed eye exams, referrals for advanced care, and glasses dispensing services. These are vital services, particularly for those who reside in ‘medical deserts’ – regions with inadequate access to healthcare – who may be unable to travel hours from home to visit an eye health professional.
“Connecting our passionate optometrists to multi-faceted outreach opportunities is a key part of the ACO’s reason for being,” explained Pete Haydon, CEO of the ACO. “Programs such as the Mobile Eye Care service, in collaboration with RFDS Victoria, provide lasting help to communities that often have scarce resources and difficulties accessing quality care. By delivering this program, and all our outreach services, we are playing a small part in helping individuals to look after their health and enhance their quality of life.”
Kate Storr, Health Services Manager at RFDS Victoria, says the partnership is highly successful. “RFDS Victoria is proud to partner with the ACO and the local health services to ensure locals can access care closer to home. Our Mobile Eye Care clinic aims to eliminate the need for a lengthy car journey, and enable individuals to prioritise their eye health,” she added.
Recently, ACO optometrist Austin Tang took the opportunity to participate in the Mobile Eye Care service, visiting Birchip and Donald in north-east Victoria for several days to deliver care out of the local hospital.
Mr Tang has a passion for regional eye care stemming from spending his early career in the regional towns of Broken Hill and Dubbo.
“In urban communities where services are concentrated, it’s easy to take for granted the opportunity of regular eye examinations to detect the early stages of vision loss and implement prevention measures,” Mr Tang told mivision. “But without these services, many people are left vulnerable to worsening eye complications that can affect their quality of life immensely. What’s more, with ageing populations, regional communities are disproportionately affected by age-related vision issues, meaning accessible quality eye care is a critical service.”
These barriers to accessible, regular eye care contribute to greater health disparities and inequities for rural communities compared to those in urban areas.
Mr Tang says the Mobile Eye Care service enables him to continue sharing his skills with country communities while giving residents the opportunity to take control of their own eye health.
“Since it began, the mobile service has highlighted the critical role that optometrists play in detecting previously unknown eye conditions and directing them to appropriate services for treatment.
“This is an important motivator for my outreach work – I have seen several cases of advanced pathology which I have been able to direct promptly to ophthalmology services. It is rewarding to know that our services can make such a difference to patients – sometimes we detect eye problems that the patient had not known about prior.”
During trips with the Mobile Eye Care service, outreach optometrists like Mr Tang have the chance to immerse themselves in all that regional towns have to offer and enjoy the change of pace.
“At Birchip and Donald, the client base was a mixture of individuals from the community and residents of the nearby nursing homes. During my stay, one of my patients told me stories about the towns and how they have changed over the years. Quite a few happened to have moved from the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, simply because of the slower pace in the country towns,” Mr Tang said.
He concluded, “Where a patient resides should not dictate the level of healthcare they can receive, and it’s important that we don’t leave our regional patients behind. With initiatives such as the Mobile Eye Care service, we can work towards improving patient outcomes in regional and rural communities.”