Community Health Centers Offer a Vision for Quality Eye Care
Routine screenings and preventative care improve the health of underinsured communities
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“I was shocked to learn that I had glaucoma. I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms. I never thought I had to worry about vision problems,” said Seals.
Seals is just one of the 50 million Americans who are uninsured or underinsured and often forced to approach eye care as a luxury rather than a necessity. The price of medication and the cost of appointments deter patients from getting regular eye exams, which can result in irreversible vision loss if problems are left undetected and untreated. It is this reality that set an agenda for Near North Health Services Corporation, a non-profit community based health center, to offer ophthalmology services where patients can receive eye exams at little or no cost.
“Many eye diseases are silent and progressive. Without periodic exams and proper treatment, many people are at risk of vision loss or even blindness,” said Paul Bryar, MD, who is an ophthalmologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and director of the Ophthalmology Suite at Winfield Moody Health Center, one of Near North’s sites. “The goal of creating an Ophthalmology Suite was to reduce the barriers uninsured patients like Seals are experiencing in accessing eye care, while also providing primary care and education.”
Being uninsured, Seals was unable to play a proactive role in his healthcare. “I never went to see the doctor. I couldn’t afford preventive care, and frankly, I felt fine,” Seals explained. While at Winfield Moody with his mother, Seals learned of the Ophthalmology Suite and decided to take advantage of the services by receiving a much needed eye-exam.
Bryar diagnosed Seals with glaucoma and immediately put him on a treatment plan, ultimately saving his vision and his future of roller skating with his family. Bryar considers Seals a success story and a prime example of the importance of routine eye screening even for patients that fall outside of the high risk groups. “If Ron hadn’t come in for an exam, his disease could have progressed causing blindness. Glaucoma needs to be detected early in order for treatment to be effective,” added Bryar, who is also an associate professor of ophthalmology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Chronic diseases such as diabetes, HIV, hypertension and stroke can cause vision problems. Those most commonly associated are glaucoma, cataracts and diabetic eye disease, which often have no symptoms and are difficult to self-diagnose, underscoring the importance of annual dilated eye exams.
As many as one third of the adult patients at Winfield Moody have diabetes, which is the leading cause of blindness in adults under the age of 70. In prior years, many of these patients have not had access to adequate eye care. “One of our primary goals in the Ophthalmology Suite is to make sure that every patient with diabetes has a yearly eye exam,” said Bryar.
In addition to the Ophthalmology Suite at Winfield Moody, Northwestern Memorial ophthalmologists support clinics at Near North’s Komed Holman Health Center, which is located in the South Side of Chicago, and last year, they opened a new optometry suite at Erie Family Health Center, another federally-qualified health center, serving Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. The suites offer accessible eye care for thousands of Chicago’s low-income patients by providing comprehensive eye testing and treatment, including vision screening, dilated exams and glaucoma testing performed by an optometrist and an ophthalmologist.
“Northwestern Memorial has long-standing relationships with Near North and Erie Family Health that were built on the principles of providing quality care to underinsured and uninsured patients in the Chicago community,” said Daniel Derman, MD, vice president of operations at Northwestern Memorial. “Through our collaboration, we look forward to offering continued financial and strategic program support to ensure patients have access to the care they need.”
“I feel so blessed that I am able to continue skating with my family. Without that I would be lost,” added Seals.