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OPTICAL PHILANTHROPY

A Doctor with a Vision

PROJECT VISION HAWAII has helped screen thousands of patients who may otherwise not have had access to vision care


PROJECT VISION Team ready to help.

While the Retina Institute of Hawaii is a nationally known research and care institution that has helped many patients, founder Michael D. Bennett, MD, wanted to do more. In particular, he wanted to reach people who may otherwise never see an eye doctor. So he started PROJECT VISION HAWAII—a mobile screening unit that performs free retina screenings which can detect the early signs of devastating eye conditions. The mobile unit appears at various community events, shopping areas, and other public locations to ensure everyone has access to vision-saving screenings—especially in underserved areas where residents don’t have easy access to vision care. Many of those screened in the PROJECT VISION van have no health insurance and may have never taken the initiative to see a doctor. Others just have poor access to quality care. 

The idea for PROJECT VISION stemmed around a beautiful young lady who had just finished college and walked into the Retina Institute blind in both eyes, recalls Dr. Bennett. “She had diabetes and never went in for an eye exam until she couldn’t see,” he says. “If we had just had the chance to see her one or two years earlier then we could have prevented her vision loss. So in 2007, PROJECT VISION was developed to get us into the community and offer free screenings to help people with their vision. It’s been almost two years since we started and we’ve already screened thousands of people and sent them to their primary care doctors. As soon as we identify a problem, we send them to the appropriate doctor. For many, it’s about getting them into the health care system.”

Helping prevent vision loss is something that Dr. Bennett has been passionate about since the beginning days of his career. In fact, it has been a primary goal of his practice from early on too. “When I first started my medical practice in Hawaii I realized people were losing vision as a result of diabetes and macular degeneration - there were just too many young people losing vision,” he says. “So we founded the Retina Institute of Hawaii to help people who were losing vision, not only from a research and therapeutic standpoint, but also from a prevention standpoint. Can we get them in earlier? Can we diagnose earlier? And if so, can we save more vision? The underlying philosophy was not to put out the fire, but to prevent it.”

Inspired by the young college graduate who was blind in both eyes, as well as his mission to help prevent blindness in others, Bennett began brainstorming some ways he could reach the community on a larger scale. That’s when he thought of a mobile unit that could do community outreach. One of the primary goals of the program is to seek out high-risk diabetic populations and detect early signs of retinal disease before vision loss occurs. This is especially significant given Hawaii’s high incidence of diabetes.

On the Road

PROJECT VISION is a 35-foot bus which has been equipped with cameras so that retina screenings can be performed onboard. The state-of-the-art retinal cameras provide a 200-degree internal view of a patient’s retina in less than 90 seconds without eye drops or pupil dilation. The Retina Institute of Hawaii invested more than $300,000 to make the mobile unit a reality. The unit is staffed by both paid medical personnel and trained volunteers. An Ophthalmologist reviews images, and results are sent to each participant as well as to a local eye doctor upon request. Referrals to local specialists may also be facilitated. “Our doctors, staff and volunteers go out to various events and locations statewide and screen people for conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, glaucoma, and more,” explains Bennett. “It goes back to wanting to prevent the fire, as oppose to always putting it out.”

Bennett says that the amount of staffing needed for the van is dependent on the particular event. “However, we do have a special driver for the oversized vehicle, volunteers who perform initial tests and patient education, and of course the technicians who do the actual retinal screening,” he explains.

Thousands of screenings have been done and many individuals have been helped, but Bennett says that certain stories stand out in his mind. For instance, in October 2009, the PROJECT VISION van was shipped to Molokai, courtesy of Young Brothers Company, to conduct a vision screening for this underserved island. “The Lions Club there screened 360 people, many of whom needed immediate care and were promptly followed up with by the American Diabetes Association-Hawaii Chapter,” remembers Bennett. “One of these individuals was patient Frank Parrino. In his words: ‘I was first diagnosed with wet macular degeneration on in April of 2001 at the age of 46. A retina doctor on the mainland at that time used a laser a couple of times and said there was little else that could be done for me—to just protect and take care of my unaffected eye. In September, 2009, I heard of the PROJECT VISION van coming to Molokai and jumped at the opportunity to get my eyes checked for free by a specialist. I received a phone call soon after and learned of new advances which had been made in the treatment of wet AMD in the last 10 years and was persuaded to seek further care from a retina specialist. My vision has since improved. I am very grateful for the opportunity that the PROJECT VISION van brought to Molokai and I remain a strong advocate for the service that it provides.’”

Bennett says he remains committed to continuing to provide this mobile retina screening service to Hawaii’s most underserved areas. “We are also appreciative for the ongoing support of our donors and service provider partners: The Lions Club, The American Diabetes Association, and OHA.” For more information about PROJECT VISION, visit www.retinahawaii.com

Lindsey Getz

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