Booster shot to the health care system

As a doctor of optometry, I interact daily with patients in need of vision care. These experiences provide me with a unique vantage point of our health care system that doesn’t take a doctor of optometry to diagnose. A problem can be seen by policymakers with less than 20/20 vision.

The Affordable Care Act has introduced approximately five million new patients into the already stressed California health care system. Heath care access has never been easy for those who live in rural areas or in poverty, and seeing a doctor has become even more difficult with the roll out of ACA.

In the Central Valley, new patients wait an estimated four months to see an ophthalmologist. In Los Angeles, the wait approaches nine months, and because better health care insurance coverage translates to more patients — in the long run, anyway — these waits will increase. The Association of American Medical Colleges suggests the U.S. could face a shortage of as many as 90,000 doctors by the year 2020.

Californians are known for being resourceful, and through legislation, our state can address the widening gap between patients and providers. Barry Weissman, president of the California Optometric Association, believes optometrists are the ones to bridge the gap.

According to Weissman, “Doctors of optometry have a critical role to play in making the promise of the Affordable Care Act a reality. They already provide the vast majority of eye care in the Medi-Cal program and can improve access to health care in California by providing timely care where and when it’s needed.”

Earlier this year, Senator Edward Hernandez introduced legislation that will allow optometrists to practice procedures that better reflect the extent of their training and education. The bill allows California’s optometrists to do what in many instances is already being done by optometrists elsewhere in the country.

Senate Bill 622 will permit specially licensed optometrists to perform minor procedures and provide vaccinations, instead of referring patients to other specialists.

Forty other states have already passed legislation that widens the scope of practice for doctors of optometrist, permitting them to treat a range of infections and injuries for which they’re already equipped to safely perform. In 2013, recognizing the escalating difficulty of the public to access timely care, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that allowed pharmacists to offer immunizations.

Essentially, the passing of SB 622 would be a booster shot to the health care system. Optometrists are waiting. We’re ready.

Patients probably aren’t aware that doctors of optometry already make up the vanguard of vision care. Seven out of ten vision care patients visit an optometrist first. Optometrists already draw blood, diagnose and treat diseases like glaucoma, and prescribe medication. It only makes sense that patients aren’t unnecessarily shuffled elsewhere for minor procedures, ones that optometrists are already trained to perform.

And most importantly for patients, and to the health care system as a whole, optometrists are accessible. Doctors of optometry are found in more than a thousand California cities and towns, and in all but one of our counties. This bill will bring more immediate care to rural and remote persons living farther from other providers, or who reside in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods.

Patients’ health is every provider’s priority. The goal is never to increase quantity of care at the expense of quality. To ensure the best possible care for patients, optometrists who would widen their scope of their practice will undergo even more extensive training and education under SB 622.

As I said, the diagnosis is clear. We’re faced with a problem that will not go away, and will only grow worse if optometrists aren’t allowed to help bridge the growing gap between providers and patients. Senate Bill 622 can make this possible.

As Californians, providers and patients both, we need to support this legislation to ensure the health care promise is a promise kept.

Elaine Chung is an optometrist who practices in Mountain View.

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