Soapbox

Optometrists can ease California’s doctor shortage

Melanie Kearns of Rocklin undergoes an eye examination. California optometrists are seeking a law that would allow them to diagnose and treat more ailments, arguing that it would ease the doctor shortage.
Melanie Kearns of Rocklin undergoes an eye examination. California optometrists are seeking a law that would allow them to diagnose and treat more ailments, arguing that it would ease the doctor shortage. Sacramento Bee file

Allowing Californians greater access to quality health care is long overdue. California’s doctors of optometry are one of the biggest untapped resources.

I am an optometrist in Sacramento. Both of my parents are optometrists. In fact, I became an optometrist after seeing the positive impact my parents have had through their practice. But optometry today looks much different than when my parents first entered the profession. We can do much more.

Senate Bill 622, which would expand the scope of practice for optometrists who undergo extensive additional training and education, has been heard in the Legislature before. While both Republicans and Democrats supported the measure, it was stalled by lawmakers too afraid to go against special interests and unaware of the enormous improvement the measure would make in our health care system.

The Affordable Care Act has promised millions of Americans that quality health care is possible. Unfortunately, the number of doctors able to see these patients is drastically declining; one-fourth are over 65 years old and will soon retire.

Doctors of optometry can fill this provider shortage if they are allowed to provide care to the full extent of their training. It is time we trust these professionals to perform procedures and treat patients in areas where they are specifically trained.

Only 16 out of California’s 58 counties have enough primary care doctors, while 57 counties have optometrists. Optometrists work in more than 1,000 cities and towns, within driving distance of patients in rural and disadvantaged neighborhoods that lack other medical providers. They are often front-line doctors and already provide 81 percent of eye care for Medi-Cal patients.

We do more than ask our patients “1 or 2” and hand out glasses and contacts. Doctors of optometry already provide comprehensive eye care, diagnosing and treating glaucoma, infections and inflammations. Optometrists can also identify signs of serious diseases, including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cancer, and are highly involved in preventive care of their patients.

Often we will see a patient for a routine eye exam and discover a bigger medical problem, yet we cannot diagnose or treat it under current state law. Since many optometry students will practice in other states that have a broader scope of practice, California optometry schools already train and educate them to perform to a higher standard.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in 2013 to broaden the scope of health care that pharmacists can provide, including immunizations. SB 622 would allow optometrists to administer flu, pneumonia and shingles vaccines. Pharmacists have publicly supported expanding the services that optometrists can offer to further improve the health care system.

Optometrists are dramatically underutilized, highly trained providers who stand ready to help. Elected leaders should not shy away from issues that are complex or politically charged. Our overburdened health care system is in crisis; lawmakers must ensure that Californians have access to the health care they need.

Rob Omoto is a Sacramento optometrist and past president of the Sacramento Valley Optometric Society. He can be contacted at rob.y.omoto@gmail.com.

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