Life-changing and sight-saving outreach bridges the gap

  • An ophthalmologist and a theatre nurse perform cataract surgery on a patient at Katherine Hospital, NT
    An ophthalmologist and a theatre nurse perform cataract surgery on a patient at Katherine Hospital, NT
  • Left: Mr Stanley Retchford from Bulla and Timber Creek receives treatment at Katherine Hospital with the support of his four-year-old granddaughter, Mary Jane. Right: Patient Thelma Dixon is administered eye drops and dilation prior to procedure.
    Left: Mr Stanley Retchford from Bulla and Timber Creek receives treatment at Katherine Hospital with the support of his four-year-old granddaughter, Mary Jane. Right: Patient Thelma Dixon is administered eye drops and dilation prior to procedure.
Jennifer Meier, Tim Gallagher
By
Vanguard Health
Tim Gallagher,
Chief Executive Officer;
Jennifer Meier,
Surgical Services Manager, IRIS
Issue
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The Indigenous and Remote Eye Health Service (IRIS) — delivered by Vanguard Health — has been making a difference to the lives of First Nations people living with cataract for more than a decade.

The IRIS program was the first of its kind when it was established in 2010, following advocacy by the Australian Society of Ophthalmologists to attain funding from the federal government.

Today, it’s returning to the Northern Territory (NT), after being awarded an Australian Government contract to provide at least 800 cataract surgeries to the NT’s First Nations people over the next two years.

The timing could not be better, with Indigenous Australians waiting 48 days longer, on average, than non-Indigenous Australians for sight-saving cataract surgery.

It also follows a 4.8 per cent increase in cataract surgery waiting times for Indigenous Australians compared to non-Indigenous Australians, between 2017–18 and 2019–20, despite waiting periods remaining consistent for non-Indigenous Australians.

All Australians deserve equal access to safe and high-quality eye-health services, but the statistics reinforce that more needs to be done to improve health outcomes for First Nations communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities experience vision impairment and blindness at three times the rate of other Australians. When we break this down further and look at the main causes, cataract is second on the list and responsible for 20 per cent of cases.

This is why Vanguard Health delivers the IRIS program, a model specifically designed to engage with and support the participation of more Australian ophthalmologists in outreach service.

Ophthalmologists play a crucial role in the IRIS program and help our teams contribute to achieving real patient outcomes through the delivery of eye clinics and surgical services directly to remote and rural communities across Australia.

We also recognise that bringing additional resources into rural and remote communities is essential to provide culturally appropriate care to First Nations people on Country, while reducing the growing wait times for cataract surgery.

Patients often report to us they want to be able to undertake basic tasks, like gardening and fishing, that connect them to Country but have become challenging with a vision impairment — a message we heard repeatedly in our most recent trip to Katherine in the NT.

We work closely and collaboratively with Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) and local health services to provide a seamless service for patients and remove the complexities and stress associated with getting to and from their remote communities to a hospital for treatment.

For our clinical teams delivering the IRIS program, there are few things more rewarding than returning the gift of sight and quality of life to the patients we treat.

A typical IRIS program team will consist of an ophthalmologist (eye surgeon), medical registrar, registered nurse, theatre nurse, orthoptist/optometrist and an outreach coordinator — all of whom are overseen by a program manager. 

At the IRIS program, we welcome providing additional support to all and any state and territory health services that are seeking to bridge the gap and reduce the cataract waiting lists for Indigenous patients.

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