By Ashleigh McMillan
A 2016 Churchill Fellowship will enable optometrist Lisa Penrose to travel to Canada and the USA to learn about Indigenous eye care.
Ms Penrose was announced on 30 November as the Dr Dorothea Sandars and Irene Lee Churchill Fellowship recipient. As one of 106 Fellowship recipients, Ms Penrose will investigate models of integrated primary health care internationally to improve Indigenous eye health in Australia.
Her five-week trip will see her investigate the Indian Health Service’s different integrated eye health units in Phoenix, Arizona, before travelling to Canada to visit both remote and regional First Nations communities.
Ms Penrose says the opportunity is especially exciting because there is currently no way to find out what is happening internationally in the specialised field of Indigenous health.
‘Even at conferences, there’s no real sharing of information internationally, because Indigenous eye health is a small area. It will be of great benefit for everyone in Australia to be able to bring back the knowledge,’ she said.
‘I have worked in Indigenous health for five years now and found that the integration of eye health into primary health is very important for the multidisciplinary care of chronic disease patients. Our Indigenous diabetes rates are not far different from those of the American Indian population in the USA and the First Nations people in Canada; they are facing similar issues.
‘I hope to bring back information on how to effectively and efficiently overcome the main challenges in eye health that we have in the Indigenous population, particularly in regards to diabetic retinopathy,’ Ms Penrose said.
The lengthy selection process began in April, when Ms Penrose submitted an application outlining the importance of her proposed travel. She was shortlisted before presenting in front of a 14-strong panel of previous Churchill Fellowship recipients.
The fellowships are offered by the Churchill Trust and provide a diverse group of Australians with the opportunity to travel overseas to investigate a topic about which they are passionate. Each fellowship is valued at $25,000.
Ms Penrose says she is looking forward to investigating sections of North America’s health-care systems which are analogous to those in Australia.
‘In Phoenix, there is a central reading centre for retinal photographs, which was timely too with the introduction of the new MBS item for diabetic retinopathy in Australia,’ she said.
‘I have been in contact with the optometrist who developed that central reading centre for the whole of the USA, and it will be interesting to see the protocols and processes that they have developed, because they have had many years to do that.
‘In Vancouver, I have a contact at the University of British Columbia who will facilitate visits to some remote communities for First Nations people, in order to see how screenings and multidisciplinary care for diabetes is handled.
‘They have an endocrinologist and optometrists fly to their locations in the Rocky Mountains, so it will be a contrast to the USA, where they’ve got a very well-developed service. Canada faces some big challenges such as remoteness, which we face in Australia as well,’ Ms Penrose said.
‘It will give me an understanding of how optometry can be strongly involved in that primary health model and working with ophthalmologists to make sure it’s an effective, efficient system where people don’t fall through the gaps,’ she said.