Optometry in Ethiopia

Dr. Jeffrey Walline, associate professor, just returned from a week in Ethiopia. He was at the University of Gondar, teaching in Ohio State’s Health Sciences summer institute. “Optometry in Ethiopia is practiced at a very basic level. They learn optometry according to the British style, as undergraduates in an optometry program. They prescribe glasses for refractive error, dilate the pupils for diagnostic purposes, and can check the intraocular pressure, but they don't do much beyond that. Patients often walk for tens of miles to be treated for cataracts and other ocular disease, but they rarely participate in preventive eye care or receive spectacle prescriptions for mild to moderate refractive error,” said Dr. Walline.

A few, dedicated optometrists would like to change that. Six students are obtaining their Master's degrees in optometry, which is where Dr. Walline came into the picture. Although Ethiopian optometrists don't prescribe elective or therapeutic contact lenses because they are not available in their country, these future optometrists wanted to learn all about them. The students told Dr. Walline that their instructors are strong in theories of contact lens wear, but they have no hands-on experience with them. He taught them everything from multifocal contact lenses to myopia control, and they absorbed every piece of information they could. He reports being afraid of question-and-answer periods because, although they spoke excellent English, they were soft-spoken and difficult to understand. He had to ask them to repeat their questions several times before he could even believe he mostly understood what they had just asked. The questions were intelligent, and the students asking them occasionally caught his mistakes, so he know they were paying attention.

He also taught pediatrics, with topics ranging from case history to examination of infants. He could see the atrium of the school outside the classroom window and could see the patients waiting to be examined. He saw several children but didn’t believe any of them were waiting to have their eyes examined. Patients only come to see the eye doctor when they have significant or obvious problems with their eyes, so children are rarely examined, yet the students attentively listened to what he had to say about children and the eye problems they are expected to have in the United States.

The school doesn’t have internet access, nor do they have basic equipment, such as a corneal topographer; however, they are anxious to learn and to advance optometry in Ethiopia. Most of the six students plan to stay at the school to teach. The school is located in an unfinished building, but that doesn't mean it is new. The walls need paint, the lights are dim (which is not a problem for optometry), and everything is in disrepair. Nonetheless, the faculty and Master's students are all passionate about optometry and, according to Dr. Walline, show a love and enthusiasm for the profession. He taught these students nearly 28 weeks of material in one week, and they were attentive the entire time. In fact, they were even anxious to be tested on what they learned.

Dr. Walline observed, “We have so much to be thankful for in the United States, ranging from basic life amenities to the scope of optometric practice. Every time the students in Ethiopia set up a projector for Powerpoint, they had to play with the connector to get the colors to project accurately. On occasion, the power would also go out, and we would all look directly at the laptop. These minor inconveniences would portend a miserable experience in the United States, but they were simply part of life in Ethiopia. Not one time did the students complain of seven hours of lecture per day for one week. Instead, they actively participated and appreciated the opportunity to learn. I was glad that I had to opportunity to teach these challenged, enthusiastic, young optometrists.”