University of Auckland: Country’s first mobile optometry clinic launched

Aotearoa’s first custom-built mobile optometry service was launched on 10 June at the University of Auckland in a bid to improve access to eye healthcare.

The Vision Bus Aotearoa is a state-of-the-art comprehensive optometry clinic that allows University of Auckland staff and student optometrists to deliver full eye exams onsite at schools and other locations.

The bus recently started visiting south Auckland schools, marae and refugee centres, offering eye tests and treatments, including glasses, at no cost to patients.

Professor Steven Dakin at the School of Optometry and Vision Science has championed the idea over the past five years only seeing it come to fruition this year.

“Our own University-run school vision screening programme across greater Auckland, reveals that one in ten schoolchildren need glasses but don’t have them.

“This is concerning because they don’t have good visual correction which means they can’t see whiteboards, which impacts educationally,” Dakin says.

“More worryingly, we see potentially blinding conditions, such as keratoconus, regularly going undiagnosed in children, with Māori and Pacific children disproportionately affected,” he says.

Cost is a significant barrier to accessing eye healthcare in New Zealand.

“For adults, the model in Aotearoa is that the customer pays but, in Australia appointments are subsidised,” Dakin says.

In Australia, a national eye health survey has found the most common causes of visual impairment are uncorrected refractive errors (63 percent), where people don’t get the glasses they need, or cataracts, where people don’t get the surgery they need.

“We don’t have the same data in Aotearoa, but the situation is likely to be serious here,” Dakin says.

The School of Optometry and Vision Science plans to lead a national survey for Aotearoa New Zealand.

Vision Bus Aotearoa is driven by Veeran Morar, a Kiwi who trained at the University of Auckland and has previously worked as a flying optometrist in the Australian Outback.

“Everything a modern optometry clinic has, we have on board. It’s really a New Zealand first,” Morar says.

Morar is inspired by his own experience as a child. He loved playing hockey, but one day he noticed he couldn’t see the hockey ball well. His mother took him to an optometrist.

“I put on my first pair of glasses and I was really blown away. I could see leaves on the trees again. I realised what I had been missing out on.

“I knew at the time it was going to change my life and it did. I went on to play hockey for New Zealand.

“I am reminded of that experience every time I give a kid a pair of glasses.”

Optometry students travel on the Vision Bus with Morar as part of their training.

“Our bus is vital for education, not only for our optometry students but for school kids in the community who are being touched by optometry,” Morar says.

“That should lead to more kids coming to study with us. We are keen to have more Māori and Pacific students. To be sustainable in the equity fight, we need to have a diverse group of optometrists.”

Vision Bus Aotearoa is currently funded entirely through philanthropy, by the Fehl family, the Blake family, Essilor (a world leader in prescription lenses) and the Buchanan Charitable Foundation.

The hope is that the model the bus supports – delivering eye-health services in partnership with local communities – will be widely adopted and state-funded in the future.