WATN: Michael Baertschi, PhD ‘15
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WATN: Michael Baertschi, PhD ‘15

It could be said that attaining a PhD in the Biomedicine program at Salus University is akin to climbing a mountain. For Michael Baertschi, PhD ‘15, BSc, FHNW (Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz, the name of the optometry college in Switzerland), MSc Optom, MMed Education, FAAO, FEAOO (Fellow of the European Academy of Optometry and Optics), that was quite literally the case.

In 2009, Dr. Pierrette Dayhaw-Barker who served the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) at Salus University for more than 35 years teaching within the Optometry, Audiology and Physician Assistant Studies programs, asked Dr. Baertschi to join the first Salus PhD in Biomedicine class.

Michael Baertschi reviewing an eye exam“She was highly convincible and with professor Josef Flammer from the University Eye Hospital in Basel, Switzerland, we found an ideal local medical mentor for this pilot project,” said Dr. Baertschi, who was also a student in the first and groundbreaking “Master of Science in Clinical Optometry” class for Swiss, Germans and Austrians at PCO in 1996-97.

Dr. Flammer’s research interest was glaucoma, in general, and especially the influence of abnormal systemic and retinal blood flow on glaucoma and optics neuropathy. Dr. Baertschi found it to be a highly interesting topic, even though it was quite different from his daily work in a Swiss optometry practice at this time.

“My thesis became ‘Factors influencing retinal venous pressure.’ The hypothesis behind it was that hypoxic conditions in general, as well as a variety of systemic and ocular diseases, are influencing the retinal blood flow and especially the arterial and the venous retinal blood pressure and therefore impair the ocular perfusion pressure,” said Dr. Baertschi.

With the choice of that topic, he said an amazing scientific and adventurous journey began for him, culminating on the summit of Mount Everest.

At the time, Dr. Baertschi was stationed in Switzerland at the University Eye Hospital of Basel and the main influenceable condition was hypoxia, which can be naturally found on high mountains.

“I was working and traveling around the world. Therefore, the studies contained working on patients and subjects in a hospital environment, in military low-pressure chambers and ‘in the field’ on high mountains in the Andes, the Alps, the Pamir Mountains and the Himalayas,” he said.

Michael Beartschi performing an eye exam on top of a mountainDr. Baertschi had started his hypoxia studies three years earlier in the Alps with his first technical preliminary experiments. Over the next few years, he refined his experiments on Mount Aconcagua in Argentina and Mount Muztagh Ata and Pik Lenin in the Pamir Mountains of China and Kyrgyzstan.

“We optimized all the highly important details which are essential for survival when you are so high on the mountain,” he said. “I borrowed a portable aluminum tripod shooting sport table from my son, changed and improved a few things and mounted the slit lamp on the table. It worked amazingly.”

Dr. Baertschi’s subjects would sit with their sleeping bags between their legs to stabilize their body during the examinations, while he fit the tripod to their body size and head position. With a small handheld slit lamp in one hand, the Goldman glass and the Ophthalmo-Dynamometer in the other hand, Dr. Baertschi completed his examinations.

Mountain conditions for those examinations weren’t exactly accommodating.

“The wind howled around the tiny tent and the temperatures were frozen cold until the sun showed up and the tent heated up incredibly hot in just a few minutes,” he said. “When the sun showed up, the light was extremely bright in the tent and we had to pull a second sleeping bag over our heads, just to make it somehow acceptable for the dilated eyes of my subjects. They suffered a lot. But I became more and more confident with my procedures and the equipment improved with every mountain and every experiment we did.”

Michael Baertschi climbing a mountainDr. Baertschi would ultimately repeat all the experiments at different altitudes on Mount Everest, and checked how much retinal blood pressure increases (Ophthalmo-Dynamometer), if their intra-ocular pressure changes (Rebound Tonometry), how much systemic blood pressure and pulse raises, and how quick their blood oxygen saturation decreased (Oximetry). Additionally, he measured ocular surface (cornea) temperature in extreme cold environment with infrared-thermometry to answer the question if the eye may freeze on top of the world, as it was formerly mentioned in mountain guide books.

“No, the eye does not freeze,” he said.

These days, Dr. Baertschi sees patients three days a week in his growing optometry and contact lens practice in Bern, Switzerland. He and his wife Franziska, an accountant, own and operate Eyeness AG, a practice they took over in 2002 from his parents. Dr. Baertschi and his father Heinz, were both members of the first Master of Science in Clinical Optometry class from PCO in 1996.

Dr. Baertschi calls his time at PCO/Salus “incomparable and superior to other programs in the world.”

“The program made me personally a more reliable scientist and well-respected nationwide eye expert,” he said. “The whole program increased my knowledge, improved my personality, strengthened my self-confidence, and boosted my acceptance not only in my profession as an optometrist, but also in the field of medicine and especially in ophthalmology.”

Dr. Baertschi has written 59 papers so far and has lectured more than 150 times on international congresses on six of the seven continents. He’s also a reviewer for six different scientific journals from around the world. Since 2020 he’s been on the editorial board of “Optometry and Contact Lenses OCL” and has worked as an investigator or paid consultant for a broad variety of well-known industry partners.

“The PhD program at Salus gave me knowledge, reputation, success, happiness and was a ‘door opener’ in many ways,” he said.

Michael Baertschi performing an eye exam