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Summer 2023

Op-Ed: Advocating for the Use of Research


Sheila Quirke

Every student at the Illinois College of Optometry (ICO) learns the importance of treating the patient in front of them. Practice and experience, though, teach ICO students that those patients in front of them are the ultimate variable. No two patients are alike, yet it is only looking at the patterns and similarities between patients that conclusions can be drawn and advancements in the field of optometry can be made through research.

Research is a pact or agreement between patient and provider or scientist; consenting entities agree to look at a health problem and pool resources to try and solve it. Ultimately, research is intended to improve the lives of patients. That same goal lies at the core of ICO’s mission to “Develop highly qualified clinical optometrists through excellence in optometric education who will strive to ‘seek that all will receive optimal healthcare.’”

Meet IEI patient Rolande Surpris. In this video, she shares how her eye exam at ICO leads to her diagnosis of diabetes. Hear her story. This is part of our patient stories series.

At ICO, the Illinois Eye Institute (IEI) is the clinic where that optimal healthcare is provided. Each ICO student will cycle through clinical rotations at the clinic that offers near incomparable exposure in academic environments to a high volume of rich, complex, and diverse patients. By the numbers, here is a look at ICO’s patient base:

  • Over 35,000 unique patients annually

  • Over 85,000 patient visits annually

  • An estimated 40% of the patient base (about 15,000) are adult patients at risk of vision loss due to underlying health conditions like hypertension, diabetes, and obesity

  • 65% of patients are Black and 30-35% of patients are Latino

  • Over 8,000 children receive vision care through ICO partnerships with Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Department of Public Health; the vast majority of those children are Black or Latino and more than 70% of them require eyeglasses and about 20% of them have underlying health issues that impact the child’s vision

  • 85% of IEI patients live within the City of Chicago, primarily in Bronzeville, and the South, West, and Southwest Sides

  • In the past 10+ years, a greater number of IEI patients have been diagnosed with advanced eye disease

  • The patient base of IEI includes a mix of people living below the poverty line and the medically underserved.

A different type of research exploring the health disparities experienced by Black Americans has recently been published in a series of articles appearing in May 2023 by the Associated Press (AP). The findings are sobering, but not at all surprising to the faculty, staff, and students of ICO. 

The fourth of the five-part series entitled High Blood Pressure Plagues Many Black Americans. Combined with COVID It’s Catastrophic, focused on the prevalence of hypertension amongst Black Americans. Statistics detail a very different picture between rates for hypertension between Black and White Americans:

“Historically, medicine has overlooked the role of structural barriers to good health among Black Americans. Instead, genetics, individual choice and even race have been blamed.”
Kat Stafford
  • 48% of White adult Americans live with hypertension compared to 56% of Black adult Americans

  • 75% of Black adults in America are likely to develop hypertension by age 55 compared to 55% of White men and 40% of White women

  • 32% of White adults with hypertension are successfully managed with medication compared to 25% of Black adults

Kat Stafford, the investigative reporter who authored the series wrote, “More and more, researchers acknowledge that high blood pressure and other ailments that strike Black Americans disproportionately can, in great measure, be traced to the inequities of Black life in America.” Later in the AP article, Ms. Stafford noted that, “Historically, medicine has overlooked the role of structural barriers to good health among Black Americans. Instead, genetics, individual choice and even race have been blamed.”

It is impossible to ignore the correlation between the ocular diseases treated by ICO’s faculty and students within the patient base of IEI, many of which are exacerbated by the high numbers of patients impacted by the systemic issues of diabetes, hypertension and obesity, and the health realities detailed in the AP series about how America’s disparity in health care negatively impacts Black people. The contrast is literally Black and White.

As a profession, optometry has always been shaped by advances in science, cultural changes and shifts in health care, and by working to understand how different lifestyles impact ocular needs. This has never been truer than in this moment. Optometry must continue to evolve as a field of study and a profession to continue to best meet the needs of our patients, especially as America’s demographics continue to shift to become more racially and ethnically diverse. 

In its 150-year history, ICO has maintained an academic and clinical interest in advancing the field of optometry. With its complex patient base, ICO is in a unique position to once again act as a leader within the field of optometry to address these known racial disparities to prioritize and champion the care of the most vulnerable patients, Black and Brown Americans, who also happen to be ICO’s patient base. 

One way this is accomplished is through ongoing research alliances with respected health care organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Mayo Clinic. ICO has leveraged its unique position as an academic institution within a Black community to best serve the needs of its patients at IEI while also providing unmatched opportunities for training and education for its students. 

The other way this is accomplished is through the regular interactions the faculty, staff, and students of ICO have with patients as they work to gain and maintain their trust. The relationship ICO has with the Bronzeville community in which it exists is a dynamic one that cannot be understated. The trust between medical provider and patient is never assumed, but earned, daily, as it has been for decades. Our patient base has relied on us for generations.

ICO is training a new generation of optometrists to be aware and responsive partners in care with a vulnerable and too often underserved patient base. We will continue to do this mission-driven work, as it serves both our students and our patients.

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