A rkansans are now at a crossroads when it comes to ensuring access to quality eye care in our state.
As you may know, during the recent legislative session, the Arkansas General Assembly spent weeks debating a bill to allow Arkansas doctors of optometry to provide our patients with more of the care we are educated to safely provide--a measure that was long overdue.
The law governing the scope of practice for optometry in Arkansas had not been updated in over 20 years. Understandably, there have been many advances in technology and education over the last two decades. In far too many cases under the outdated law, we were sending our patients to a specialist, where they often had to wait longer to be seen, drive farther, and pay for multiple office visits for care their optometrist is qualified to provide.
After thoroughly studying both sides of the issue, legislators overwhelmingly approved Act 579, which will allow optometrists practicing in Arkansas to perform a handful of additional procedures we are educated to perform. We aren't talking about invasive procedures like LASIK surgery, or cataract surgery--those types of treatments can and should require a specialist. Despite what you may have heard from opponents of the law, the procedures allowed by Act 579 are minimally invasive, done in your optometrist's chair, and without the use of general anesthesia.
So why are we still debating this issue? Arkansas ophthalmologists (specialists) are backing a special-interest group that is trying to unwind Act 579 by collecting signatures to put the measure on the 2020 general election ballot. As an optometrist who treats thousands of patients in my rural Arkansas community, I urge voters to learn the facts about Act 579 before signing a petition.
Optometrists serve more communities across Arkansas. There is a full-time doctor of optometry in more more than 80 percent of counties around the state, while only 30 percent of counties have full-time ophthalmologists.
For a decade now, I have practiced in Heber Springs, seeing patients from around Cleburne County. All too often, I find myself having to send patients (many of them elderly) out of town to see a specialist for a procedure I'm qualified to perform. That's not unique to my practice--it's happening all over the state. Patients often wind up not only paying additional costs and traveling farther, but waiting weeks sometimes for an appointment to be seen by a specialist.
Unfortunately, in some cases, when faced with the added burden, patients choose to simply go without the procedure. Act 579 would help ensure that doesn't happen.
A rkansas isn't the first state to adopt this scope of practice. Optometrists in states like our neighbor Oklahoma have been successfully performing these same procedures for more than 20 years. Our neighbor Louisiana also allows optometrists to provide their patients with this level of care.
According to a recent study by Avalon Health Economics, convenient access to quality eye care is key for most patients when it comes to their eye health. More than 80 percent of American voters reported they would rather have easy access to a doctor of optometry than have to travel farther or wait longer for an appointment with a specialist.
Opponents of Act 579 have argued that doctors of optometry aren't qualified to perform these procedures, but that's just not the case. After four years of undergraduate school, optometrists attend four years of optometry school, a doctoral-level program that includes extensive classroom and clinical training. Many optometric physicians then go on to complete a one-year residency program.
For some optometrists, if they can't provide their patients the care they are educated to provide while practicing here in Arkansas, they'll go where they can. Last year, for the first time, 20 percent of Arkansas students graduating from optometry school chose to go to a state with a broader scope of practice instead of returning home to Arkansas. Sadly, that trend will likely continue if Act 579 goes away.
With paid canvassers out all over the state, and in many cases reportedly sharing misinformation as they ask for signatures, I just want to make sure voters know the facts about Act 579. Let's choose the road that will keep our state moving forward, and protect a law that will improve quality eye-care access for patients across Arkansas.
Dr. Joe Sugg is an Arkansas native and doctor of optometry in Heber Springs, where he has practiced for 10 years. He serves as vice-president of the Arkansas Optometric Association.
Editorial on 07/06/2019
Print Headline: GUEST WRITER: Save Act 579