8 Helpful Tips for Eye Care Volunteers

If you’re an eye care professional, the eye care volunteer opportunities available to you are almost dizzying. Eye care volunteer organizations need not only ophthalmologists and optometrists, but also technicians, opticians, and administrative personnel. It’s easy to find opportunities to volunteer—harder to find the fit that best optimizes your unique time and talents.

Early one morning at the 2018 ASCRS·ASOA Annual Meeting, a panel of seasoned eye care volunteers gathered to share lessons learned from their own volunteer experiences and to guide colleagues as they forge their own volunteer paths. Here are some takeaways from that morning, plus a few more we’ve gathered from our Eye Care Leaders community since then.

Ask ‘What do you need?’ and ‘How can we best help?’

both as you prepare to volunteer and while you are volunteering. The medical teams you are collaborating with are the experts regarding patients you’ll see, the conditions you’ll encounter, and the conditions you’ll examine and operate in. If you don’t ask this question, you might assume they need something they don’t.

“To come in and say, ‘Here we are and this is what we’ll do’ is a recipe for failure,” Perrysburg, Ohio-based ophthalmologist and retinal surgery service volunteer J. Gregory Rosenthal, MD tells Eye Care Leaders. “A successful effort starts with “Here we are: How can we help?”

As a striking example, a few ASCRS panelists mentioned seeing piles of unused, high-tech surgical equipment at some of the places where they have volunteered. Equipment makers looking for tax breaks have donated this equipment, but it often sits idle because it’s impossible to cobble together different donated systems in a low-resource setting—or any existing infrastructure for that matter. If the equipment makers had asked, “What do you need?” such donations could have made an impact.

Don’t just show up and do surgery.

Partnering with a local ophthalmologist to provide follow-up care is crucial, noted South Florida-based ophthalmologist Cathleen McCabe, MD.

“Teaching is essential,” said ASCRS panelist Richard Packard, MD, who has lectured in more than 60 countries. Freely share slides and references from your talks, suggested Dr. Charles. If you are a surgeon, make sure you engage others not only about surgical techniques, but also pre-op screening, evidence-based medicine, and post-op care.

Understand that “help” flows from multiple hands, in multiple directions.

Eye care professionals sign up to volunteer because they want to help, but nearly everyone who volunteers reports that their experiences have helped them become better diagnosticians, more experienced surgeons, or more resourceful caregivers.

ASCRS 2018 panelist Steve Charles, MD, FACS, FICS remarked that he dislikes and doesn’t use the word “mentoring” because it can imply “I’m smart and you’re stupid” and can sound chauvinistic to those you are partnering with. After all, there is an average 20 percent reoperation rate in the United States for eye procedures, he observed. “Information sharing among equals is a better approach,” added Dr. Charles, who has operated in 25 countries and lectured in 50. Like their peers around the world, American eye surgeons should be working to improve their own skills and learn from their peers—even as they “help.”

Dr. Charles said he likes to choose his words carefully to help set the right tone when he volunteers. He suggested phrases like:

  • “sharing with colleagues”
  • “partnering with local physicians”
  • “seeing patients together”
  • “operating together”

Prepare to encounter conditions you’ve seen only rarely in your practice at home.

ASCRS panelist Reena Sethi, DO, MS, FCLAO described how she often sees very hard cataracts when working at the Arunodaya Deseret Eye Hospital in Delhi. Such cases require tailored surgical approaches, she commented, and she showed session attendees a video of her technique for preparing hard cataracts for PHACO. Several panelists and attendees commented that one of the many rewards of volunteering is the opportunity to sharpen surgical acumen.

“The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.”

—Helen Keller

Think about how to best tap into existing, effective organizations.

Twelve years ago, when Dr. Rosenthal and his colleagues went looking to ways to help with retina care around the world, they tapped into established cataract programs that were having to turn away patients with retina conditions. He and his retina colleagues have focused on skills transfer, which has become easier as new diagnostic, therapeutic, and communication technologies evolve.

Seek out tools that can make a big impact in low-resource settings.

Panelist Susan M. MacDonald, MD focused on how to rise to the challenge of providing inexpensive, high-quality care. Trying to provide PHACO in a low resource setting is difficult. It’s also difficult to transfer skills to surgeons working in that setting all the time, observed Dr. MacDonald, who is president of EyeCorps and associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. Some recommendations:

Simple, portable, inexpensive tools like the miLOOP are potential game changers. Outcomes are comparable to PHACO, and in low-resource settings, the complication rate is much lower, Dr. MacDonald noted. miLOOP is labeled single-use only in the U.S., but the manufacturer is developing a reusable version that will be sold in developing countries only, she said.

Diagnostic tools like the pocket-sized ophthalmoscope Arclight can also make an impact in low-resource settings, noted Dr. Packard. It’s easy to train health professionals to use the Arclight, and the sturdy, solar-powered device doesn’t require expensive replacement parts. This fall, students from the University of St. Andrews will bike from Cairo to Capetown to distribute Arclights to health professionals in remote, low-resource areas and train them how to use it, Dr. Packard commented.

Once you and the partners you’re volunteering with identify tools or materials that will make a good impact, consider reaching out to vendors for donations, Dr. McCabe recommended. Companies are often much more generous than you might anticipate, panelists and attendees agreed.

Think carefully about how many techs you should bring.

If you bring an army of your own techs, you limit the opportunity to collaboration, Dr. Charles commented. In a plea to fellows especially, he quipped, “Learn how to set up and operate the equipment you use—you are not a rock band.”

Even Dr. Charles agreed that bringing one scrub tech you’re used to working with can make you a more effective volunteer surgeon in certain situations. It has the additional benefit of opening up volunteer experiences to the team you work with at home, several panelists added.

If you’re traveling to volunteer, plan your trip strategically.

ASCRS panelists also touched on practical tips like:

Time your trip.

Consider not only for you, but also the people you are volunteering with. If you travel someplace during monsoon season, for example, infrastructure challenges may make you less effective than you would be during a drier time of year. Ask those whom you are collaborating with for their recommendations as to the best times to work together. Check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health site for information on vaccines and other advisories.

Consider time zone adjustment needs.

When people ask Dr. Charles what local sites he’d like to see, he said he tells them, “All I want to see is the inside of an operating room or a classroom.” Other panelists commented that spending a couple days vacation in the area prior to the volunteer work both connects them with the culture and helps them recover from jet lag before they dive into work.

Don’t forget return trips.

Some panelists said they preferred to work with the same organization in the same geographical location several years consecutively. That, way, they spend less time each year adjusting to a brand new place. They also believe sustained collaborations with local teams yield the best long-term outcomes. Other panelists said they believed they could make optimal impact by visiting different places.

Don’t forget to document your trip!

Sharing photos and videos of your volunteer journey on your practice’s social media pages. It’s a great way to share your involvement with your patients and your community.

Looking for a list of volunteer opportunities? Visit our blog find a list of links.

Have something to add to the list? Please write us at editorial@eyecareleaders.com.

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