Optometry students in Haiti receive invaluable hands-on training, despite civil unrest

Imagine a population of 11 million people—and only two optometrists.

This ratio is a reality in Haiti, a country that has faced significant, continuous hardships including political instability, a poor economy, natural disasters, the COVID pandemic, and more. Access to eye care outside of the major cities is nearly nonexistent except for services delivered during medical mission trips.

In 2017, Optometry Giving Sight (OGS) partnered with Université d’Etat d’Haiti, Université de Montréal, VOSH/International, Charity Vision, and the Brien Holden Foundation to establish the Haiti School of Optometry. The partners set out to increase the number of locally trained optometrists and to establish an Academic Vision Centre to provide hands-on optometric training and care.

Today, there are about 60 students enrolled in the five-year program, which is set to graduate its first class of optometrists if not for a few roadblocks. Due to civil unrest in Haiti, in-person clinical training is difficult to obtain for the fifth-year students. COVID restrictions made it difficult for foreign optometric educators to travel to Haiti, and unreliable internet access is prohibitive for online learning. In addition, there is uncertainty surrounding government legislation to recognize optometry as a licensed medical profession.

Despite these challenges, the Haiti School of Optometry continues to operate, and its students remain committed to receiving their education and ultimately, providing eye care in their communities. But there is still work to be done to ensure this is possible.

Optometry Giving Sight has granted financial assistance and invested resources to continue supporting the school over the last few years and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. Not only has the support enabled improved internet access for online education, but OGS has also worked with VOSH/International to deliver in-person teaching clinics for the graduating class.

Thus in 2021, VOSH-Pennsylvania led an educational mission, via a project called Je ayisyen (Haitian eyes) through which students enhanced their clinical skills, gained much-needed practice with patients, and built their confidence. This first clinic was held at the New Hope Hospital in Cap-Haïtien, north of Haiti, and the experience underscored the students’ need for more supervised clinical training and access to patients to complete their optometry education.

Deteriorating safety and security in Haiti delayed the delivery of a second teaching clinic, but ultimately, OGS, VOSH/International, VOSH-Pennsylvania and partners were able to make it happen again at the new eye care clinic at the same New Hope Hospital. Eleven fifth-year students from the Haiti School of Optometry spent a week there, where they were able to refresh their knowledge and skills related to clinical procedures, equipment handling, patient forms, and work organization. The students saw a total of 289 patients—an average of 26 patients per student—and completed the necessary patient records for each.

“I arrived at Cap-Haïtien stressed because it had been a long time since I had seen a patient. But by the time we left, I realized that although there are things to improve, I am ready,” said one of the students in a post-clinic survey. “The stress I felt about obtaining my diploma has completely disappeared and I know now that I’m made to be an optometrist.”

The students’ time in the clinic also reinforced the impact optometrists can have on the lives of their patients. From helping a patient with excruciating pain relieve his eye pressure with medication to diagnosing a four-month-old baby with cataracts rather than retinoblastoma, lives were undoubtedly changed. Even the ability to prescribe glasses confirmed for the students the positive difference they can make with eye care.

“In the first clinic, I saw what the job of the optometrist is,” remarked another student. “In the second clinic, I saw what I can do as an optometrist. Thank you to each of you who contributed to the efforts and time availability to make this clinic possible.”

The Haiti School of Optometry is currently backed by an OGS-supported international consortium composed of Université de Montréal, Brien Holden Foundation and Université d’Etat d’Haiti.

To support current and future optometry students in Haiti and around the world, please donate today.