Visionary Entrepreneur Sets Sight on Eliminating Preventable Blindness

Visionary Entrepreneur Sets Sight on Eliminating Preventable Blindness

John Converse Townsend's picture

Nearly 40 million people worldwide are needlessly blind and another 240 million have low vision. Virtually all of the world’s 285 million visually-impaired persons live in developing countries, suffering from uncorrected refractive errors and cataracts.

But Unite For Sight, a social enterprise headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut, is empowering communities worldwide to improve eye health and eliminate preventable blindness. The organization guarantees eye treatment—whether it’s medication, a $150 sight-restoring surgery or even a first pair of glasses—for patients living in poverty in Ghana, India, and Honduras, as well as the United States and Canada.

More than 1.3 million people worldwide have overcome barriers to eye care through Unite For Sight services, whether they can afford to pay or not—the bill is always covered by the nonprofit.

Poverty often prices many out of health care services. Rural villagers can live a half-day’s travel from qualified eye care centers and, even if they had the expendable income to pay for care, are unable (or unwilling) to spend precious working hours in transit.

Others are fearful of doctors, shaken by misinformation about surgical procedures; there is a pervasive myth in western Africa that cataract surgery involves the replacement of the damaged eye with one from a goat.

“A lot of patients (in developing countries) think that when their hair goes gray, their eyes go gray—a symptom of a mature cataract,” said Jennifer Staple-Clark, the visionary social entrepreneur behind Unite For Sight and winner of the Ashoka Changemakers Making More Health competition. “They think it’s a part of aging, and nothing can be done.”

Patient barriers to care cause thousands to lose their vision each year, but there is hope. “Actually, a 15-minute cataract surgery restores someone’s sight entirely,” said Staple-Clark, adding that 80 percent of their eye issues are easily preventable.

Staple-Clark first dreamed of eliminating preventable blindness in 2000 while a sophomore at Yale University, working as a research assistant at a New Haven eye clinic. Though most of her patients had health insurance and received routine physicals, they suffered from glaucoma, an eye disorder that results in blindness if untreated.

Staple-Clark’s patients often expressed regret for never having visited an optometrist, an experience that motivated her to launch a student organization that connected New Haven community members with nationally-available, free health care coverage programs (including eye care, of course) through the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Optometric Association.

The student operation was so successful that Staple-Clark expanded her eye-care model to 50 university chapters across the United States and Canada. Today, Unite For Sight invests human and financial resources in local eye clinics to provide quality eye care (including examinations, diagnosis, treatment, and surgery) for those living in poverty in Ghana, India, and Honduras.

“Our health eye care providers see anywhere between 100 to 300 patients each day,” Staple-Clark told Changemakers. “On a year-round basis, Unite For Sight ophthalmologists, ophthalmic nurses, and optometrists reach rural regions to provide on-site treatment, in addition to transporting patients in need of advanced care to surgery centers in larger cities like Accra.”

Unite For Sight’s Ghana program is championed by five of the country’s 45 ophthalmologists and presently conducts half of all eye operations.

“Partners continue to provide care for their regular paying patients, but are only able to generate enough profit to keep their clinics operating,” Staple-Clark said. “But with Unite For Sight, patients who are not able to pay for services—whether it’s medication or a $150 sight-restoring surgery—are still guaranteed medical treatment, and the bill is covered by our funding.”

Unite For Sight’s work is partly funded by donations and grants, a sustainability standard in the social sector, but several program divisions together generate 90 percent of the organization’s yearly revenue. Unite For Sight’s 50 university chapters must meet on-campus fundraising requirements, while its Global Impact Fellows fundraise around the world.

Unite For Sight’s Global Health University and annual health and innovation conference generate additional income through certification programs, registration fees, and ticket sales. The best part: every dollar raised is used to fund Unite For Sight’s global eye care programming.

By year’s end, Unite For Sight will have performed more than 50,000 sight-restoring surgeries while providing care for millions more. They will also have trained more than 8,300 Global Impact Fellows who support and assist local eye clinics and their ophthalmic staff, and play a major role in educating rural populations about modern health care practices.

“With proper treatment, blindness from glaucoma and cataracts can be prevented,” Staple-Clark said. “Some patients have suffered from poor vision or blindness for five, 10, or even 15 years, and it’s always a heartwarming story when a very short surgery allows them to see again. Their lives are transformed.”

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