Optometrists and Public Health
Optometry is a public health profession, and optometrists provide a service that satisfies a major need particularly in children and underserved populations.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, public health is defined as, “the science of protecting and improving health of people in their communities, achieved by: promoting healthy lifestyles, researching disease and injury prevention, and detecting, preventing, and responding to infectious diseases.” By that definition, it should be apparent that public health can take on many faces. Any effort that betters the health of communities is considered a public health effort. Optometrists certainly have the ability and training to serve as public health clinicians.
To quote Dr. Norma Bowyer, public health optometry is practiced when “optometrists can look at their practices from a population standpoint, not just each single interaction or encounter.” There are many initiatives currently in place to service pediatric patients via screening, and international patients via mission trips. But, that's not the only way that an Optometrist can practice public health. Getting more involved and visible in the community and bringing relevant services to the patients is a key method of integrating public health into one’s scope of practice.
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Public health can open your eyes to what disease states are more prevalent in your community. If you observe a lot of convergence insufficiency in your pediatric population for example, you will want to make sure that parents and teachers know what the signs and symptoms are of CI, so that when they observe this in the classroom or at home, they can contact an eye care professional right away.
There are many more initiatives for optometrists and public health on a global level
When we use the term global, we mean both international and domestic. These issues are largely related to ocular disease and systemic health, and optometrists need to bring that into the exam room by leveraging something simple: patient education.
There is a language to public health. Understanding prevalence, incidence, morbidity and other important factors is the first step in attempting to identify and solve public health issues.
There are many ways that Optometrists can be more active in the realm of public health. Of course, one must recognize that practicing to the full extent of their scope is imperative to make the most impact in the communities in which they practice. Additionally, the Optometrist needs to find their core public health interest. Akin to how a clinician specializes, the public health professional should have a focused target population under the influence of a target disease and/or disparity. Optometrists affect the lives of patients across the entire spectrum of ages, genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities. Lastly, education is key in order to make any change.
A formal public health degree or certification is not inherently necessary. However, there is what some say is a “language of public health.” It is the ability to integrate a variety of perspectives and schools of thought in order to objectively apply foundational principles to address a prevalent issue in a target population. A structured program is certainly a way to go, but just like public health there is no one-size-fits-all.