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Improving vision on the Navajo Nation

The grant will allow Moran to train existing health care workers in the Navajo Nation provider network to become certified ophthalmic assistants.

This piece was originally published by the Moran Eye Center

The John A. Moran Eye Center’s Global Outreach Division has partnered with the Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS) to provide pediatric and adult vision screenings, glasses, and eye surgery, primarily on the Utah strip of the Navajo Nation, since 2013.

Since there are no ophthalmologists in the remote Nation, Moran doctors and medical personnel volunteer their time to provide care, making the hours-long trip from Salt Lake City on a near-monthly basis. Setting up screening clinics in local schools and UNHS community health centers, the team often serves hundreds of patients in a single weekend.

Now, a $4,000 grant awarded to Moran residents Mike Murri, MD, Sean Collon, MD, Tony Mai, MD, and University of Utah Medical School student James Ellis, will help more people receive care year-round. The grant will allow Moran to train existing health care workers in the Navajo Nation provider network to become certified ophthalmic assistants (COAs).

Navajo Nation-based COAs will ultimately have the skills needed to take patients’ histories, perform time-consuming vision screenings, check eye alignment, and measure patients for glasses ahead of Moran’s outreach visits to the Four Corners region. Their front-line work will give Moran physicians more time to address urgent issues and perform surgeries.

“Moran has trained ophthalmic assistants around the world, but this marks our first time training local community partners,” says third-year resident Murri.

Awarded through the University of Utah School of Medicine’s GME Resident Engagement & Training for Underserved & Rural Needs (RETURN) first annual Concept to Community contest, the funds will cover iPads, certification manuals, and exam fees for the trainees.

Craig J. Chaya, MD, outreach co-medical director, called the RETURN grant a “terrific boost to the outreach program.”

“Once the COAs earn their certifications, we have existing funding to bring them to Moran for further training,” says Chaya. “We’re building a bridge to more local, sustainable, hands-on training.”

Building a foundation for ongoing education

Trainees require the technology to keep up with the Moran curriculum and one-year certification process. It also allows them to access monthly remote grand rounds and other educational events. The clinics will permanently house the iPads to provide ongoing educational materials.

“We aim to transfer skills and provide practice and testing for each trainee,” says Murri. “Each person trained represents a step forward in making our work on the Navajo Nation more efficient.”

In addition, adds Murri, “Some patients live in extremely remote areas and may encounter difficulties when it comes to making a trip to a specific outreach clinic location on a certain date. Having full-time, on-site technicians will give them more flexibility and access. They’ll also be able to interact with someone familiar and from their own culture.”

Worldwide need for technology, training and education

Moran physicians, nurses, and medical personnel have volunteered their time in more than 25 countries. In each location, they train local ophthalmologists and health care workers to increase access to eye care. In Utah, they provide the same volunteer-based, charitable eye care to several underserved populations, including the Navajo Nation.

The division’s work is funded solely by charitable donations.

In a typical year, Moran’s outreach team provides about 1,000 sight-restoring surgeries, 5,000 eye exams, and 2,000 free pairs of eyeglasses while training 30 international physicians and nurses; some 120 volunteers perform 12,500 service hours.

“Communities around the world share the challenges faced by the Navajo,” says Chaya. “As recently outlined in The Lancet Global Health Commission on Global Eye Health, the vision community must join forces to strengthen health care systems and increase capacity to make universal eye care more equitable and sustainable. Investment in technology and improving training and education is critical.”