Severe vision loss more prevalent in southern U.S.

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The FINANCIAL — A recent study revealed that severe vision loss—defined as blindness or having serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses—is especially prevalent in counties in the southern United States. The report also closely associates severe vision loss with poverty.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers used data from the America Community Survey (ACS)—an ongoing survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, which provides estimates of demographic, housing, social and economic characteristics to communities. In 2008, the ACS began including questions about disability, according to AOA.

The report, which divided 3,143 counties into quartiles based on severe vision loss prevalence and the proportion of residents living below the poverty level, determined that more than 75 percent of counties in the severe vision loss prevalence quartile were located in the South.

More than half of the counties in the top quartile for severe vision loss prevalence were also in the top quartile of poverty.

The prevalence of severe vision loss was highest in the South (77.3 percent), followed by the West (11.7 percent), the Midwest (10.7 percent) and the Northeast (0.3 percent). Eight states had at least 6 percent of their counties in the top quartile for both severe vision loss and poverty: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Glen “Bubba” Steele, O.D., chair of AOA’s InfantSEE and Children’s Vision Committee, is unsurprised by the report’s findings.

“When there is little access to preventive health care—that should begin very early in life—it is not surprising when reviewing these health statistics. More directly, the statistics on obesity are very high in the same states and counties. This unfortunate inability to access care, either because of distance or lack of insurance, leads to the statistics shown in the report,” says Dr. Steele.

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The National Eye Care Workforce Study, released by the AOA in 2014, found that the supply of eye doctors is adequate to meet the current and future eye health and vision care needs of the American people, including those in the southern states.

However, the CDC report cites limited access to health care as a major reason for the prevalence of severe vision loss in these regions.

Although an adequate number of eye care professionals serve these regions, lack of access to the broader health care system—due, in part, to poverty—may be a more significant hindrance.

“Poverty is a major obstacle in access to care. When the care is not covered by insurance or must be paid out of pocket, patients must make choices and health is not always the first choice, particularly vision and eye health,” says Steele.

In order to address this disproportionate prevalence of severe vision loss in southern states Dr. Steele says, “Access to care must begin early in life. Prevention is the primary practice that will address this trend.”

Dr. Steele shares his advice for ODs working in these states: “Become proactive and advocate for coverage for patients who lack access to care. In addition to the testing protocols, adding services such as low vision will help the patients who are already well entrenched in the poverty cycle. Become involved in their overall health concerns and provide advice to help them manage their issues,” says Dr. Steele.


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