The latest overseas outreach project of Singapore Polytechnic saw a group of 20 students screen over 2,000 people in Medan, Indonesia, as part of an ongoing program supported by Essilor Vision Foundation. Joycelyn Leow, a year 2 optometry student, shares some insights on the difficulties of bringing vision care to such a multi-ethnic and geographically disparate country.

With 257 million people spread over thousands of islands covering the same total area as the USA, Indonesia has major challenges in ensuring services adequately reach its growing population. There is great economic potential ahead but today’s reality is a significant contrast in daily quality of life for certain communities. 30 million live below the poverty line, often with little access to basic healthcare and vision care services. According to the World Health Organization recommendations, Indonesia has half as many ophthalmologists as it needs.

Indonesia has half as many ophthalmologists as it needs

In mid September, a team of optometry students and lecturers from Singapore Polytechnic Optometry Center set off for a five day mission in Medan, state capital of Sumatra as part of the Gift of Sight 2015. Gift of Sight is an annual project that aims to provide primary eye care in underserved areas across the Asia Pacific region and to allow students to experience practice outside of normal clinical settings –to encourage them to improvise and think outside the box.

“It was my first time taking part in such an overseas outreach program,” explained Joycelyn Leow. “Language was a huge barrier and though we had lessons in Bahasa Indonesian, we had to rely heavily on the few translators that were in the field with us.”

Over five days, the team screened 2287 people and prescribed 647 pairs of eyewear to local inhabitants. Despite the multiple difficulties faced by the students, they overcame obstacles for an unforgettable learning experience – both in terms of optometry and community volunteering.

“This experience made me wonder how can children learn in school when they can’t see what is written on the board in class”

“Through this project, I saw first hand how living in an underserved area can affect people’s lives. It was shocking to find out that some children have high uncorrected refractive errors and it made me wonder how they can learn in school when they can’t see what is written on the board in class. Also elderly people have poor vision due to dense cataracts. That’s worrying as they have a higher risk of getting into an accident.”

Knowledge and experience of the vision problems of Singapore’s multi-ethnic population in Singapore was a bonus for the students in their screening of local inhabitants. Indonesia has over 300 distinct native ethnic groups, and over 740 different languages.

“The smiles of people putting on the glasses for the first time will be deeply anchored in my memories”

“The trip improved my interpersonal skills and optometric techniques. In a place where we have limited resources and language barriers, I learned how to adapt, making full use of what we had to better serve the people there, through on-the-spot decisions during screening.

“Although it was crowded as many people came for vision screening making the number of villages at times overwhelming, it was really worth it when we dispensed their glasses. Their smiles putting on the glasses for the first time will be deeply anchored in my memories.”