Alumnus and Adjunct Help Develop First Optometry School in Haiti

Haiti School StudentsThis November, 17 students began their studies at the first optometry program in Haiti thanks to the recent collaboration between l’Universite d’Etat d’Haiti (UEH), Brien Holden Vision Institute, Optometry Giving Sight, Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH) International and Charity Vision with support from the University of Montreal. Alumnus David McPhillips, OD ’85, former president of VOSH international and co-founder of the Pennsylvania  chapter of VOSH, and Luigi Bilotto, OD, Resident ’94, adjunct instructor and director Global Human Resource Development for Brien Holden Vision Institute, were instrumental in the develop of the program. 

There are currently only three optometrists and 58 ophthalmologists serving Haiti's population of 10 million people. The goal of the new optometry program is to significantly expand the availability primary eye care services in Haiti.

"This project will seek to graduate 16 optometrists per year, in what will be a five-year bachelor of vision science degree,” Dr. Bilotto said in a recent press release. "This means within 10 years, there will be 80 new locally educated eye care professionals who will be providing eye care to more than 360,000 Haitians.”

The program aimed to educate a diverse group of students, according to Dr. McPhillips. The first students are a broad mix of gender and are from both urban and rural backgrounds. Dr. McPhillips emphasized that the students will be primary eye care providers after completing the five year program, which has a well-rounded curriculum that begins with a medical background. Some of the faculty members teaching the in-depth optometry classes will be from the University of Montreal and recent optometry graduates who are members of VOSH Corps, a program dedicated to employing young optometrists to teach in developing nations, similar to the Peace Corps model. 

McPhillips - Haiti School“The first year of their curriculum will be side by side with the first-year medical students to learn the important basic sciences,” he said. “I look at the curriculum and it’s very similar to that at Salus and other North American optometry schools. There are many courses in ophthalmic optics, ocular disease and even vision therapy and pediatrics too.”

Salus Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) also donated some ophthalmic equipment for the new school along with other organizations.

“Several faculty members have secured equipment that PCO was going to get rid of as they got new equipment; hopefully, we will have new lanes shipped sometime at the beginning of next year,” Dr. McPhillips said. “Other organizations have donated a lot of equipment so there will be very nice equipment for the students in the program.”

Dr. McPhillips has always been involved in humanitarian work, especially during his time at PCO. He was the co-chair for Students in Optometric Service to Humanity (SOSH) and went to Haiti in 1984 and 1985. PCO’s chapter of SOSH has been going to underdeveloped countries to provide eye care since it was first established in 1969. Haiti had been a long-time destination for the group and continues to be a country selected throughout the years. Those first trips to Haiti instilled Dr. McPhillips’ devotion to humanitarian work.  

Haiti School“[Those trips] had made such a big impression on me,” he said. “When I got out of school, I assumed many ODs, especially previous SOSH members, were involved in activities like SOSH had been, but found that it really wasn’t the case. A colleague of mine (Jack Hauler, OD ’84) and I started VOSH Pennsylvania, which is one of the chapters of VOSH international.  We had gone to many countries and done a lot of good work, especially in Guatemala, but I always wanted to go back to Haiti.”

Dr. McPhillips believes educating more optometrists in Haiti will help improve eye care as a whole for the country and allow ophthalmologists to focus on other areas of care.
“[The new optometrists] are going to make those ophthalmologists better at what they were trained do,” he said. “They’ll have more time for surgeries so they won’t have to be going out to the country side to do screenings, looking for individuals with refractive errors and pathology. Optometrists can do that. And they can also devote more time to the management of their practice.”

To get involved with VOSH International or VOSH PA eye care trips go to vosh.org or email Dr. McPhillips at drmcpod@gmail.com.