It was a casual revelation made by a friend, but Karen Hong found it disturbing.
Hong, a student at Stanford University School of Medicine, was chatting with her best friend one day when the friend revealed to her that as a child she was placed in a class for students with learning disabilities until a doctor checked her vision and prescribed her with glasses. “School was much easier after that,” the friend told Hong.
“While it was a passing remark, the fact that someone who received regular health check-ups went five years with undiagnosed myopia meant to me that millions of capable children in less fortunate situations stay in those ‘learning disabled’ classes for a condition that is easily treatable,” says Hong.
Through further investigation, Hong discovered the alarming fact that children across all socioeconomic classes are at risk for preventable long-term eye defects, with just 40 percent undergoing recommended screening in the United States. She began raising public awareness of the issue on the opinion pages of her local newspapers, which resulted in her being contacted by concerned parents and local advocacy organizations to work on solutions. Encouraged by the public response, Hong collaborated with Prevent Blindness/Northern California to provide vision screening services to underserved preschool students in San Jose and other parts of Santa Clara County for her Fellowship Project. She also organized a team of undergraduates to screen preschoolers, connect them with care, and follow up with their treatment.
“Prevent Blindness screens over 300 preschool children aged five years and under for conditions such as refractive error, lazy eye, and eye misalignment, all of which could seriously debilitate a child’s future learning trajectory without early intervention,” says Hong, a 2013-’14 Schweitzer Fellow of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter. “Each child took less than one minute to screen, and it felt good to know that we could alter the trajectory of that child’s life.”
Hong is hopeful that Stanford students will continue to screen preschoolers in the South Bay community for eye diseases since there are several school district that Prevent Blindness Northern California cannot yet reach. And she is a firm believer that healthcare delivery systems must create incentives for screenings and other measures to prevent chronic disease, rather than treating people after the fact. “This will not only require funding,” she says, “but creative ways to integrate screening and lifestyle changes into communities.”
Hong was recently named a 2015 Gates Cambridge Scholar, and says she looks forward to continuing her commitment to service. “I take being a Schweitzer Fellow for Life seriously because it is a commitment to service,” Hong says. “I am proud to know that there is a community of humble leaders out there trying to make things better for others in big and small ways.”