The Observatory

Bringing rural eye health into focus

Brandon Ah Tong

Side view of Darwin Convention Centre on the right with water in the foreground and tall buildings to the left

Between 24-27 May, I had the pleasure of attending the 13th National Rural Health Conference in Darwin. Held at the Darwin Convention Centre (pictured above), which is nestled between the vibrant waterfront precinct and the Arafura Sea, and with stunning 32 degree days the ‘something else’ feeling from the location was matched by a program a little out of the ordinary.

Intertwined with the instructive, thought provoking and sometimes challenging delegate presentations, were skits, music, dance and humour, sometimes for entertainment and sometimes disguising conference announcements keeping us all on our toes.

Eye health and vision care was extremely well represented with Optometry Australia sporting a stand and Australian College of Optometry, Brien Holden Vision Institute, Indigenous Eye Health Unit, The Fred Hollows Foundation, and Vision 2020 Australia collaborating on a joint stand. A host of eye health presentations were dotted throughout the program including progress against the Roadmap to Close the Gap for Vision; diabetic retinopathy in the Kimberley; building an eye health workforce; eye health coordination and much more. It was the impact of this little ‘eye health army’ doing their thing and spreading the word that managed to get eye health included in thetop ten recommendationscoming out of the conference.

Darwin Convention Centre auditorium filling up with delegates ahead of opening ceremony  Photo:  National Rural Health Alliance

Firstly, working in rural, regional and remote Australia is a bit like planning an emergency response after a natural disaster— nothing is one dimensional or operates in isolation. Multidisciplinary teams or a range of different skill sets for different parts of the patient journey works best. Understanding what’s already available on the ground in community or how to build a particular service in with other health or community services, is essential. While specialisation might be useful in the city, diversification and collaboration is second to none in the bush.

Secondly, the incidence of eye complications related to diabetes or diabetic retinopathy is showing a spike among younger Australians aged 13-24. While I was aware the prevalence of diabetes is on the rise and that the longer a person lives with diabetes the more chance they will develop diabetic retinopathy, this trend identified in several presentations was something new to me. This means that not only are more kids being born with diabetes or developing type 2 diabetes early in their lives, their diabetes is not being managed well and their eye health is suffering at a relatively early age. This trend is concerning as this problem points to both health and social determinants like poor access to GPs and the price of fresh vegetables, and any response will need to address both simultaneously as well as getting kids in to have their eyes tested and treated.

Rural Health conference sponsors on stage at the conference  
Photo:  Glenn Campbell

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About the Author

Brandon Ah Tong

Brandon Ah Tong

Brandon Ah Tong is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Vision 2020 Australia. Brandon began losing his sight when he was in his mid-twenties, and has been instrumental in ensuring that the voices of those with a disability are heard. His achievements span: the successful inclusion of people who are blind or vision impaired in the National Disability Insurance Scheme; accessible taxi’s; and more recently the National Eye Health Survey and National Framework Implementation Plan. His work was recognised in 2014 where he received the Victorian Government Disability Award in the Emerging Leader category and was a finalist in the National Disability Awards. Read more by this author →

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