The recent measles and whooping cough outbreaks in California offer a stark reminder about the importance of immunizations to keep the population safe. The state has also had at least 45 flu-related deaths this season; seniors suffer unnecessarily from shingles; and vulnerable Californians are not getting access to an effective pneumonia vaccine.
Any conversations about preventing these and other diseases must include solutions for the massive gulf between the number of available primary care doctors and the patients who need them.
To help alleviate this doctor shortage, Sen. Ed Hernandez, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, has introduced legislation to expand the scope of practice for optometrists. This bill would give the statutory right to administer certain vaccines to patients at optometrists’ offices – similar to legislation that allowed pharmacists to provide vaccines at places such as local drug stores.
The intent is to give patients more opportunities to get vaccinated and make it more convenient for them to do so, particularly in the rural reaches of our state where primary care doctors are few and far between.
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California has optometrists in every county, within driving distance of most residents. Optometrists already draw blood, diagnose diseases and prescribe medications, and are often the only medical provider that patients regularly see in rural and disadvantaged urban neighborhoods.
Most other states have recognized the critical role that non-physicians play in supplementing the care provided by physicians and have expanded the scope of practice for nurses, optometrists and pharmacists, to name a few.
Many Californians already lack access to basic medical care. Millions of patients who are newly eligible for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act are beginning to enter our already overburdened system. Many are being enrolled in the state Medi-Cal program at a time when fewer and fewer doctors are willing to see these patients. Optometrists throughout our state have served these patients well, and we will continue to play an essential role in providing much-needed care for this important, yet too often ignored, patient population.
While optometrists are often viewed as experts in vision, their training and education expands beyond that. Doctors of optometry have been diagnosing significant diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and glaucoma. On many occasions, they are the first point of contact for eye maladies that in many cases have resulted in the early diagnosis of potential life-threatening problems, such as brain aneurysms.
Sen. Hernandez recognizes that California is missing a critical opportunity to mobilize all of its tools possible to maintain public health. This is the year to allow optometrists to use their training, accessibility and relationships with patients to help stem epidemics such as those dominating our headlines today.
John Rosten is immediate past president of the California Optometric Association.