A Boon for Baltimore’s Vision

Wilmer Eye Institute brings eye care to underserved Baltimore seniors.

Published in Dome - May/June 2017

The senior apartment building sits at a six-way intersection that few Baltimoreans travel anymore. Federal, Gay and North Chester streets meet in the long shadow of the old American Brewery building, the seven-story, 130-year-old behemoth that towers over a neighborhood long blighted by abandoned and boarded-up row houses.

The brick apartment building’s lobby is crowded today, though, as the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins brings its traveling eye screenings to the residents and their guests. As often as twice a week, the screening team sets up shop in locations around Baltimore.

Their work feeds into a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study of glaucoma in the country’s neediest and highest-risk populations. In Baltimore, the funding specifically targets African-Americans and Latinos age 50 and up. But the Wilmer team takes the screening several steps further, checking not only for glaucoma, but also for other eye diseases, like cataracts and macular degeneration — a gradual worsening of vision that may affect one or both eyes.

Nationwide, minorities are far more likely than whites to leave poor eyesight uncorrected, according to the CDC. African-American seniors are almost three times as likely to develop glaucoma, a pressure-related condition that can lead to blindness.

In three years, the Wilmer team has screened more than 3,000 people for eye disease, says team manager Prateek Gajwani. “We go anywhere in the city that people need us,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be on the east side or near the Hopkins campus.”

Gajwani’s group includes seven Johns Hopkins University students, both undergraduate and graduate, who work part time performing the screenings. The students are trained to use high-tech eye test devices and recognize eye abnormalities that go beyond corrective lenses. They also help arrange follow-up care at Wilmer for patients who need it.

The clinic helps find insurance and treatment for those who are subsequently diagnosed with eye disease.

At the screenings, the student team also tests patients’ vision to determine whether they need glasses. Those who do can select frames from a tray of samples and have them fitted correctly. Wilmer then prepares the lenses, and patients receive their new glasses, free of charge, either in person or in the mail within three weeks.

Joyce Wilkins has traveled across town for her eye screening. After receiving a clean bill of vision health and a free pair of reading glasses, she’s all smiles.

“That’s all I need,” she says.

Wilkins belongs to Southern Baptist Church, across North Chester Street from the apartment building. Her pastor announced the eye screening at Sunday services, she says. Wilkins gathered a small group of friends to join her.

“I’m retired, and vision insurance is so expensive,” she says, noting that Medicare does not pay for eye screenings. “You really can’t beat this program. I love it.”

David Friedman is principal investigator for the glaucoma research program and the director of the Wilmer Eye Institute’s Dana Center for Preventive Ophthalmology. He reviews all patient records, making sure that those screened receive the best possible care.

He says there is a “tremendous unmet need” to identify and screen for eye disease in Americans who are underserved by the health care system; about 20 percent of people who undergo the community screening get subsequent eye exams at Wilmer.

Known for its work around the world to prevent and treat blindness and eye disease, the Dana Center is also committed to improving vision in Baltimore. Much of the center’s research is aimed at understanding the barriers to eye care faced by underserved people.

“We are at a point where it is possible to screen remotely for glaucoma and other eye diseases using devices and relatively low-cost personnel rather than physicians,” says Friedman.

The screening program aims to serve as a model that other institutions can use to identify and treat underserved minorities with eye disease.