Mobile Student Eye Clinic in Charleston Launches Amid Optometrist Concerns | Health
Optician Joe Venzie motioned for the little girl to come forward.
She silently walked into the mobile eye clinic parked outside Sanders-Clyde Elementary School in Charleston, and shook her head when Venzie asked her if she had ever had her eyes examined before. He did his best to put her at ease.
âNo one will touch your eyes,â he said. “It’s going to be easy. And we’ve got some stickers for you when we’re done.”
The student, who visited the mobile clinic on October 4, is one of hundreds of Charleston children enrolled in a Title 1 elementary school who have already been screened for eye problems this school year. The nonprofit program that offers the screenings is new to Charleston and is called Vision to Learn. It is free for students, funded by donations, and provides children with free prescription glasses if they need them. Typically, over 30 percent of children in these schools do so.
But the program is also controversial. While Vision to Learn has been operational in other states since 2012 – and has screened millions of children across the United States over the past decade – the South Carolina Optometric Physicians Association has attempted to prevent the group from ‘establish a presence here.
“This is not about Vision to Learn. It is about protecting our children,” said Greenville optometrist Johndra McNeely, speaking on behalf of the Optometric Physicians Association, which represents about 70 percent. percent of licensed optometrists in South Carolina. âThis is long term eye care for the kids. It’s a big deal. Like I said, basic eye exams, minimum – minimum. That’s all we asked for. . ”
The Optometric Association said Vision to Learn does not offer minimum baseline eye exams. In fact, the association claimed that Vision to Learn can potentially do more harm than potentially misdiagnose children’s vision problems.
âPoor projection could make the problem worse,â McNeely said. “Is something better than nothing? Not always. Certainly not.”
Despite this, after The Post and Courier published an article about the association’s concerns about Vision to Learn in May, state lawmakers passed a one-year temporary law that allows Vision to Learn to offer students these eye exams during the school day through its mobile clinic. . If the legislature does not make the law permanent next year, Vision to Learn must cease operations in South Carolina.
The association hopes that it will not come to this. The Vision to Learn lobbyist and one of his employees met with representatives of the SC Optometric Physicians Association in Colombia in late September to discuss a possible compromise before the legislature resumed in January. To that end, Damian Carroll, who is national director and chief of staff for Vision to Learn, said they plan to add a piece of equipment to the mobile clinic called a background camera, which can be used to view the back of the eye.
The Optometric Physicians Association’s main point of contention with Vision to Learn is that it does not dilate students’ eyes during exams. Dilation is a process that widens the pupil of the eye, usually through the use of eye drops. It leaves more light behind the eye, giving the doctor a better view inside. It is a common component of most eye exams, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends a full eye exam with dilation if a child fails a visual screening.
But some experts, including those at the Mayo Clinic and Vision to Learn, argue that the need for dilation during an eye exam depends on age and eye health, among other factors. The Vision to Learn team says the equipment used in its mobile eye clinic is able to diagnose a variety of common eye problems, including nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism, without resorting to dilation. If a more comprehensive examination becomes necessary, Vision to Learn refers these children to doctors in the community who are able to provide a higher level of care.
Dilating each student’s eyes would be disruptive, time-consuming and difficult to do without a parent present at school, Carroll said. The dilation would also compromise the child’s eyesight for several hours. The group’s model is premised on being as least disruptive as possible to classroom instruction, he said.
“We want to continue to compromise. It is always easier for us to help the children when we have the support of the local optometrist association,” said Carroll. âUnfortunately, (dilation) is just not practical in a school setting. It is not necessary to meet the basic needs of these students.â
McNeely said she was concerned Vision to Learn might not meet these basic needs. The association has requested to observe the Vision to Learn mobile clinic in practice and has not yet been granted permission to do so, she said.
âWe’re still waiting for a response,â McNeely said.
Meanwhile, other health professionals in South Carolina are singing the praises of Vision to Learn. MUSC Health CEO Dr Patrick Cawley said the group offered a “great opportunity” for students in Charleston to receive basic eye care.
Ellen Nitz, director of nursing for the Charleston County School District, called Vision to Learn a “great gift.”
When RN Allison Wukovits found out that Vision to Learn wanted to start a mobile clinic for students in Charleston, she jumped at the chance to participate.
âIt literally almost brought tears to my eyes,â she said.
Wukovits is a Charleston County School District nurse who works with nurses at several schools. But when she was previously stationed full-time at Sanders-Clyde, she said she had struggled for years to help students with eye problems. The school used to offer simple screenings and refer students to doctors in the community if they needed glasses. But for various reasons, including money and transportation, students never got them, she said.
She was finally able to find an ophthalmologist in Mount Pleasant who examined the students on site in elementary school and gave them free glasses.
âIt was the most amazing experience,â she said, describing what it was like to see children put on their glasses for the first time. “They didn’t know the trees weren’t just a patch of green. The trees had leaves.”
Then the pandemic struck and the students were sent home. Some students in the district have not been screened for vision problems in years, Wukovits said. Some of them have never been examined.
She does not understand the opposition of the Optometric Physician Association to Vision to Learn. On the contrary, she pointed out, Vision to Learn is creating a new clientele for optometrists in the state. In addition, public school students are also examined by external providers for dental and medical issues. And she has never received any complaints from groups representing doctors or dentists in the state.
McNeely, speaking on behalf of the optometrist group, countered that dentists and doctors provide these screening services to students, but generally do not offer treatment inside the school, during the school day.
âNo one has a tooth pulled out at school,â she said. Vision to Learn, meanwhile, writes and fills prescriptions, she said. “Our most vulnerable children do not deserve substandard screening.”
Retired Charleston banker Henry Blackford has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years to launch Vision to Learn in South Carolina. It costs about $ 350,000 to run the program each year. The mobile clinic costs around $ 125,000 to buy and equip, he said. The Storm Eye Institute at the Medical University of South Carolina covers most of the costs of the mobile van.
Blackford plans to maintain fundraising, but asking donors for multi-year pledges is difficult, he said, when it is unclear how long Vision to Learn will be allowed to screen students in the State. He wants lawmakers to make it permanent.
âI just don’t know how you turn it down,â Blackford said.
He hopes the success of the program speaks for itself when lawmakers tackle the future of Vision to Learn next year. A bill has already been introduced by Reps Joe Bustos and William Cogswell, both Republicans from Charleston, that would give the mobile clinic permission to continue serving students. It will take an audience and a passage in both rooms of the Statehouse.
âI think it’s pretty clear that this is an incredible initiative,â Cogswell said. “We’re just trying to make a very useful program exist.”
He said he did not foresee any problem getting the bill passed.
McNeely isn’t so sure.
âIf it was so easy to pass, why was it not adopted in the last three sessions when it was tabled? she said. “It’s because there are people who know it’s not the right thing.”
In the meantime, the mobile eye clinic will continue to tour schools in Charleston County. More than 10,000 students will be screened this school year in the Lowcountry.
Sanders-Clyde third-year student Braylen Shockley has already had his eye exam. He said it was difficult to read his teacher’s screen if the words weren’t big enough. And there is only a limited number of students who can fit into the first row.
âIt’s frustrating,â he said. “I can’t see and it drives me crazy sometimes.”
Braylen’s new glasses have been ordered. He’ll have them this week or next.
âI’m going to take red glasses,â the 9-year-old said. Red is her favorite color.