Q&A: Promoting a vision of global health care

Unite For Sight, an international organization founded by a Yale sophomore, will hold its eighth annual Global Health & Innovation Conference at the University and the Shubert Theater on Saturday and Sunday, April 16 and 17.

The event will bring together over 2,000 global health professionals, social entrepreneurs, thought-leaders and students for a program of talks and sessions demonstrating what works in global health, international development and social entrepreneurship. The speakers will include Yale professors as well as representatives from such organizations as Environmental Working Group, OneWorld Health, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Millennium Village Project, Ashoka, Endeavor, City Light Capital, IDEO, Water.org, mothers2mothers, Save The Children and many others. (Click here for the conference schedule and online registration.)

Unite For Sight began in 2000 in the dorm room of then-Yale sophomore Jennifer Staple-Clark and has grown to be an internationally recognized organization for people committed to improving eye health and eliminating preventable blindness. The Yale Daily Bulletin recently spoke with the alumna about the group’s current work and future plans. The following is an edited transcript of that discussion.

What inspired you to start down this path?

In summer 2000, while working as a clinical ophthalmology research associate in Connecticut, I interacted with patients whose blindness could have been prevented by early medical intervention. Through their poignant stories, I came to understand patient barriers to care, motivating me to start Unite For Sight as a student organization. For three years, a group of 35 Yale students eliminated barriers to eye care in the New Haven community by connecting the community members with nationally-available free eye-care coverage programs through professional organizations such as the American Academy of Ophthalmology. After developing a successful local model from 2000 t0 2003 at Yale, I scaled the organization, first throughout North America, and then globally.

How did your fellow Yalies react?

There has been enthusiasm and active participation with Unite For Sight from the beginning, as Unite For Sight fulfills a clear and evidence-based need in the communities at home and abroad.

 Were you surprised at how it took off over the years?

 I initially started Unite For Sight with a plan for it to only be a student organization. It was not until three years later in 2003 that I began considering growing the organization’s model to eliminate patient barriers to care domestically and internationally. I was surprised and delighted as the organization grew beyond what I had envisioned. We now have four program divisions, which include our international eye care delivery programs that have provided eye care to more than 1.2 million people in developing countries.

How did Unite For Sight, which began as a sight-restoring organization, expand to encompass the much broader field of global health?

Unite For Sight addresses global health delivery for patients living in extreme poverty. Local problems demand local solutions. As a global health delivery organization, Unite For Sight partners with local eye clinics to identify community-specific barriers that impede effective eye care delivery for patients living in extreme poverty, and we work with the local clinics to develop strategies to overcome the barriers through sustainable systems of care. We support local doctors to eliminate barriers to care for patients living in extreme poverty. The daily, year-round eye care outreach efforts are supported by Unite For Sight and extend to individuals in villages that are located approximately one to eight hours from the eye clinic.

All of the eye care services are comprehensive, including examinations by local doctors, diagnosis and care for all treatable conditions, education and prevention. On a daily basis, the eye clinic’s ophthalmic staff travels to remote villages to provide exams, diagnosis, medication and glasses. The patients who need advanced ophthalmic care, such as cataract surgery, are transported from their village to the eye clinic, where they receive sight-restoring surgeries. The outreach teams provide the patients and villages with follow-up care regularly throughout the year, and program outcomes are continuously monitored.

In addition to providing international eye care for more than 200,000 patients each year, we scale our overall impact on global health delivery by developing and nurturing the current and next generation of global health leaders. Unite For Sight’s Global Health University includes idea incubator workshops, 14 certificate programs related to global health and social entrepreneurship, a Global Impact Corps program, fellowship and internship opportunities in the U.S., and more than 60 online courses in our Global Health E-Library. Our annual Global Health & Innovation Conference convenes 2,200 participants from all 50 states and from more than 50 countries to exchange ideas and strategies across all disciplines of global health, international development and social entrepreneurship.

Where do you see Unite For Sight going from here? How would you like to see it grow?

Unite For Sight currently works in Ghana, Honduras and India. To date, Unite For Sight has provided eye care to 1.2 million people worldwide, including more than 43,000 sight-restoring surgeries. In the small West African country of Ghana, five of the country’s 45 ophthalmologists are now partners of Unite For Sight, and these five ophthalmologists are providing more than half of all cataract surgeries done in Ghana. We look forward to continuously expanding our reach so that we can impact increasing numbers of patients on a daily, monthly and annual basis.

— By Helen Dodson

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Media Contact

Helen Dodson: helen.dodson@yale.edu, 203-436-3984