Wednesday, Dec 13, 2023

Improving Access to Care: Why Vision Care is Often the Front Door to Healthcare

Kate Renwick-EspinosaPresident at VSP Vision Care, VSP Vision


Every day, I hear stories of patients whose lives were changed because of an eye exam. Carmen’s story is one of those. After four years without visiting an optometrist, Carmen made an appointment when she started experiencing blurry vision. However, what seemed to be an uneventful exam soon became a concerning evaluation. 

After examining her eyes, her optometrist ordered an MRI. The MRI showed that Carmen had a meningioma, a type of tumor that forms in the brain. In Carmen’s case, it was benign and had encroached upon her left optic nerve. It was growing at a rate where it would soon invade the right optic nerve, potentially causing permanent vision loss in both eyes.

Vision care is what opened the door for Carmen to receive additional, lifesaving care through the larger healthcare ecosystem to treat her meningioma and save her vision in her right eye. Without it, she could have lost her vision due to delayed diagnosis and treatment. 

Vision care often serves as a gateway to overall healthcare, especially for people who live in underserved communities or have had little to no exposure or poor experiences with traditional healthcare providers. 

Eye care is Healthcare

Vision care is more than a "nice to have” and should be considered part of a whole-body approach to health and a comprehensive preventive care plan. 

Here’s why: 

Existing systemic health disparities, particularly in underserved communities, can lead to a higher prevalence of chronic illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease. 

Luckily, with low-cost entry to receive an eye exam, vision care often serves as the “front door” to care, especially for the roughly 13 million people in the U.S. living in a primary care provider (PCP) “healthcare desert.” Eye doctors are essential providers of preventive care. 

Eye Doctors Bridge Healthcare Access Gaps

While we are seeing a national shortage of PCPs, there’s a strong pipeline for optometry through 2030, according to Health Resources and Services Administration data. And a bright spot is the rise of telehealth and teleoptometry to serve as an additional tool to improve access to care. 

  • Patients living in healthcare deserts increasingly have more options to receive care at home or at a retailer with telehealth capabilities, including phone consultations and remote examinations. 
  • In some of our VSP locations, where doctor retention might be a challenge, we’ve been able to use patient-in, doctor-out technology that allows a remote doctor to deliver an eye exam to a patient in the store. 
  • We’ve seen cross-generational interest from consumers, but it’s rarely an either-or scenario: they see virtual care as another tool at a doctor’s disposal. 

Recruiting the next generation of healthcare practitioners is top of mind across the industry. In the vision care space, VSP Vision is supporting the next generation of optometrists through student loan reimbursement programs and resources to help optometry students reach their goals. 

These programs encourage early career optometrists, and practicing optometrists still carrying student debt, to work in underserved communities by helping them pay off their student debt. 

It’s important to see these kinds of reimbursement programs reflected across the healthcare ecosystem to ensure a strong pipeline of healthcare practitioners making choices based on their career aspirations – not ones that are driven by the race to pay off student loans.

Vision Care Can Be Less Intimidating for Patients 

We’ve learned that many patients are more likely to get an eye exam than their annual physical. Because vision care is cost effective, minimally invasive, and contributes to preventive healthcare, it can be a more approachable option for groups who have had poor experiences in the healthcare system. 

As we continue to raise awareness that chronic diseases can threaten vision, and eye exams can help detect early signs of those chronic diseases, we can help change behaviors to everyone’s benefit.

It will take all stakeholders across the healthcare ecosystem to work together, make investments, and continue innovating to overcome barriers to care. The end goal is to increase healthcare access—including eye care—for all.

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