On behalf of the Canadian Association of Optometrists, we are pleased to be part of this very significant event today.
The work of optometrists and the work of the CNIB is very complementary. We are both deeply committed to remediating vision impairment, but also dedicated to preventing vision loss through early detection and treatment of eye disease. We know that 75% of vision loss is preventable. We are totally in agreement that the patient belongs in the centre of all of our activities.
We also agree that a key component of protecting the eye and vision health of Canadians is education. It is said that “Ignorance is Bliss”, but when it comes to the eyes, what we don’t know can hurt us.
We know from research that people value their vision highly. We also know that most people understand the need for eye health protection. Paradoxically, we also know that many people do not necessarily follow through with regular, routine eye exams that are necessary to detect eye disease that may be early enough to not be causing noticeable symptoms. If people wait until they notice vision loss, that impairment may already be permanent, and it may be difficult to prevent further progression.
Statistics don’t always tell the whole picture. Some very smart people may be totally ignorant of the risks and opportunities with respect to their eyes. On Tuesday we met with a federal cabinet minister (not the Health Minister) in Ottawa, and talked to her about the issues being raised during National Vision Health Month. We were stunned to hear her comment, as we began our conversation “Well there isn’t anything that can be done about eye health, is there?” By the time we finished our meeting, she was much better informed about how eye and vision health can be protected, and she heard our appeal for Health Canada to take more responsibility for educating the public, in collaboration with the groups represented in this room.
Our visit to Ottawa on Tuesday was a full day of lobbying, which kicked off with a Parliamentary Breakfast sponsored by John Rafferty, MP. No, not the same John Rafferty that is here in this room. I had the great pleasure, together with the Canadian Ophthalmological Society, and the Opticians Association of Canada, to present the inaugural Vision Champion Award to Patricia Davidson, MP in recognition of the work that she did to introduce and pass a private member’s bill to protect eye health. We were pleased to host the CNIB at that event, and then later that evening to attend the CNIB reception at which Senator Asha Seth was given an award of appreciation, partly for the work that she did to have May declared by the government last year as National Vision Health Month.
Optometrists are adamant that regular routine eye examinations are key to preventing vision loss. It is extremely disappointing to us when we see a patient that has suffered a permanent loss of vision that could have been prevented if detected earlier. A good friend of mine, about my age, came to see me recently, about 5 years after his last exam. He had ignored my previous advice to return in 2 years. I was devastated to find that he had developed glaucoma, and had already lost nearly ¾ of the visual field in one eye, and ¼ in the other. If detected earlier, this could have been prevented.
Children are a major concern to us as well. Early, and regular, eye exams are vital. A few years ago, in the same week, I saw two boys, for their first eye exams, one in Grade 5 and the other in Grade 6, that were struggling with learning to read, having fallen several grade levels behind. And you know how damaging that can be to a child’s self esteem. But both of them were found to have a high level of hyperopia, or far-sightedness. Without glasses, they had good visual acuity, but their eyes were straining enormously to be able to see, which severely limited their concentration and comprehension when reading. With new glasses, they both zoomed ahead, and within a few months had caught up to their class in reading ability. They, and their parents, were thrilled, and so was I.
We say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but eye doctors know that they are also the windows to the body and it’s health. During routine eye exams, optometrists often find signs in their patients of systemic disease. Diabetes, hypertension, and cancer, to name a few, often manifest in the eyes. When evidence is found during an eye exam, a timely referral may even save a life.
This reminds me of another patient of mine, who was under treatment for hypertension. While examining his retinas I saw telltale signs that his blood pressure was dangerously high, putting him at risk of imminent stroke. I told him to go immediately to his family physician, and faxed a report over. Unfortunately, when I saw him again a couple years later, he told me that his doctor had not taken the information I sent him seriously, and he suffered a stroke two days later. I tell this story not to blame the doctor, but to point out that optometrists have a lot more work to do to make our medical colleagues more aware of the role that we can play to help care for our mutual patients.
These stories are not unique. All optometrists, and ophthalmologists, can tell you about similar experiences.
We are here today because we need to change how these stories unfold. Collaboratively, and collectively, we can ensure that Canadians receive the care that they deserve. The charter we are signing today is really the start of a much larger conversation those of us in the eye care sector need to have with the health care community, our governments, and the Canadian people.
I would like to extend thanks, on behalf of the doctors of optometry across Canada, to CNIB for organizing this event and bringing us all together in a collective vision of better patient care and better eye health.