According to a 2015 study commissioned by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, one in three Indigenous Canadians has not had an eye exam in the past two years. Research has also shown that Aboriginal children experience a high rate of astigmatism. Poor eyesight can prevent children from learning in the classroom.
Justin Kritzinger, a student in the University of Toronto’s Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation (IHPME) System Innovation and Leadership program at the Dalla School of Public Health, seeks to break down the barriers that Indigenous children face access to eye care as part of a flagship project.
He and his supervisors – Helen Dimaras, a scientist in the child health evaluative sciences program at the SickKids Research Institute and an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health; ophthalmologist Myrna Lichter of St. Michael’s Hospital and Unity Health Toronto; and Abi Sriharan from IHPME – developed a pilot program with two urban Aboriginal community organizations to assess the eye health needs of local children.
“It’s incredibly important to work with these community organizations as partners to provide the best possible care and to make sure we do it in a culturally sensitive way that works for the people we’re trying to serve,” says Kritzinger, who is also a third-year medical student at the University of Toronto’s Temerty School of Medicine.
The eye clinics will be operated by Native Child and Family Services of Toronto and the Native Women’s Resource Center of Toronto, who will advertise the clinic’s services. Dr. Lichter, along with eye health specialists from the Hospital for Sick Children, will check for eye problems, assess visual acuity, and prescribe eyeglasses as needed.
The idea for the project grew out of Kritzinger’s previous work with the Native Women’s Resource Center providing eye care for adults. Many patients would say they would also like to have their children’s eyes examined, Kritzinger recalls. “We thought: Why can’t we do the same thing that we do with adults with children? Mothers could bring their children and both could have their eyes examined at the same time. It would be a hands-on experience and children could also be given glasses,” he said.
The clinics will be made possible by volunteer eye doctors as well as a $25,000 grant from The Hospital for Sick Children’s Center for Global Child Health, which will pay for the children’s glasses.
In addition to providing care, the team will study the prevalence of vision and eye disorders in Indigenous school-aged children, identify barriers Indigenous children face in accessing care, and find ways to provide culturally safe and comprehensive eye exams and follow-up care.
The team’s ultimate goal is to develop a long-term program that can be integrated into the existing community center infrastructure. “I hope we can impact the quality of life of many children by correcting vision problems early on, which can have immense consequences downstream if left uncorrected,” said Kritzinger. “We also want to develop a sustainable program that can serve the community in a meaningful way for a long time. This can only be done by working with the community and the organizations under their leadership.