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Special school screening challenges optometry students


(L-R) Deakin student Zara Daneshvar, Barwon student George Divine, university clinician Ash Chan and Barwon speech pathologist Kathryn Hughes   Image: Essilor Vision Foundation


By Philip Ritchie


University students, academics and local practitioners have joined forces to screen a special developmental school in Geelong, where they found high rates of eye conditions, some of which had been overlooked.

The school screening is part of an ongoing effort by Deakin University to engage undergraduate students in practical settings and community service. The Essilor Vision Foundation in conjunction with the university offers free prescription spectacles to screened children who need them.

‘We’ve been working with the university since late March and have thus far screened almost 700 Geelong primary school children. To take the screening process to an entirely different demographic has us all anticipating something very special,’ CEO of Essilor Vision Foundation Greg Johnson said in a media release.

Dr Geoff Sampson led the screening at Barwon Valley School with a team of three final-year optometry students, two optometrists and five clinicians. He’s a senior lecturer of optometry at Deakin University’s School of Medicine.

Dr Sampson said he looked for students to volunteer, rather than participate as a requirement of the course, because it could be difficult and confronting to work with people with special needs.

Barwon cares for students aged from five to 18 years with a range of needs and disabilities: autism, spectrum and sensory disorder, and physical, social, medical and communication impairment.

‘It’s much harder to get their co-operation with the tests you’re trying to do, so we have to adapt the way we go about it quite dramatically,’ he said.

‘We expect our students to go out to a number of clinical placements with exposure to ophthalmologists and optometrists in clinical practice. We take a group of students out with a group of experienced supervisors and get them to do a lot of the basic tests. We oversee their work and check everything they do.’

To screen Barwon, the team set up two testing areas to make the setting more accommodating: one room was empty and clinical, and the other was more welcoming with carers present.

‘We check their eye health; we check their eye movements and co-ordination. That’s largely all we can do with kids in these cases. Even with standard tests, like measuring vision quality or reading an eye chart, probably 60-70 per cent of them couldn’t do that.’

In total, 32 students were screened and 44 per cent of those were referred for further testing, Dr Sampson said. ‘That’s a little higher than we’d normally see. It’s normally closer to 30 per cent.’

The other 200 Barwon students were already seeing a practitioner for eye health and vision care.

Invaluable experience

One of Deakin’s alumnae and recent academic recruit Amanda Edgar assisted at Barwon. She took part in a screening last year while completing her optometry course. She also works as an optometrist in Geelong and as a radiographer at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

‘I went to a school screening as a student with Deakin into primary schools, and now this is a challenging step going into a special needs school. If I didn’t have that experience as a student to start with it would’ve been more challenging,’ Amanda said.

‘It really is invaluable, especially when you’re trying to develop your paediatric skills. The next time I go again, I’ll be better at it.’

Amanda said that to screen Barwon students, she consulted with their carers about what works well for them and what doesn’t, before adapting each technique to their requirements.

She said the team discovered many previously undetected conditions, falling into three main categories: refractive errors, eye co-ordination and eye health. After a condition was diagnosed, the Barwon students were referred to local optometrists or ophthalmologists.

‘We’re picking up things that wouldn’t have been attended to because it may or may not be a priority.’

Amanda’s has some advice for optometry students looking to expand their skills: ‘Be interested, seek opportunities and volunteer time because it does expand your skills as a practitioner, and there are really only benefits you can see from it.

‘I’m really interested in participating more in these things as they pop up and volunteering more of my time,’ she said.

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