RMIT is working with The Fred Hollows Foundation to assess the full benefits of cataract removal and restoring sight in Vietnam.
It is a quarter of a century since renowned ophthalmologist Fred Hollows was named Australian of the Year and more than two decades since the humanitarian’s premature death in 1993 at the age of 63.
Yet Hollows’ work to save and restore sight among the world’s poor remains ongoing and now RMIT researchers will work with The Fred Hollows Foundation to help gauge the value of the organisation’s work to end avoidable blindness.
The research is led by Associate Professor Simon Feeny and Associate Professor Alberto Posso of RMIT’s International Development and Trade research group.
An economist and expert in foreign aid, Feeny said the study will be undertaken throughout 2016 to capture the extensive impacts of restoring sight.
“The work of The Fred Hollows Foundation to help eliminate blindness in developing countries is known to bring profound and priceless joy to individual beneficiaries of the medical treatments,” Feeny said.
“Successfully treated individuals are more likely to be able to return to school or work and take part in their communities again. But other impacts include benefits to the families, carers and communities.
“Benefits will not just be financial but also emotional, social, psychological and physical.”
Feeny said existing studies show a high rate of return for every dollar invested in eye care in the developing world.
“There is about a $4 return for every $1 spent, however these figures tend to underestimate the true benefits of restoring sight because they don’t calculate broader impacts on development.”
He said the research is important because it will indicate to current and potential donors the impacts of their dollars being spent.
“It is not just about a high economic rate of return but other more intangible benefits that we will be measuring as well.’’
Feeny and colleague Posso, a labour economist, will measure the changes to the lives of the recipients in terms of their quality of life, hope and aspirations.
Posso said the research project will be among the first holistic assessments of the benefits of restoring sight from cataract removal.
“There are an estimated 380,000 blind people in Vietnam and almost four million are visually impaired,’’ he said.
“With about 10 ophthalmologists for every million patients, there is a clear and urgent need for improving eye health in the country.”
Other chief investigators in the project include Associate Professor Bob Baulch of RMIT Vietnam, Dr Truong Thi Kim Chuyen of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Vietnam and Dr Lachlan McDonald, Senior Economist at The Fred Hollows Foundation and a recent PhD graduate from RMIT.
McDonald said 80 per cent of visual impairment can be prevented or treated, however governments and international donors remain surprisingly reluctant to increase funding for eye-care.
“Working in collaboration with RMIT across its international campuses presented us with a great opportunity,” he said.
“The project will be very important in assisting The Fred Hollows Foundation in determining the broader impacts of its programs and increasing eye health as a public health priority.”
The Fred Hollows Foundation works in more than 25 countries. It helps train and empowers local eye doctors, nurses and health workers to create a sustainable system of care in the communities that need it most.
The Fred Hollows Foundation CEO Brian Doolan said the goal of eliminating avoidable blindness was both achievable and affordable.
“A key challenge is to find ways to convince governments and international donors that it is also a good investment for the limited health budgets,” Doolan said.
“Working in collaboration with researchers from RMIT presents us with a great opportunity to build the necessary evidence base that will inform our ongoing advocacy and programming.”
Story: Rita Truong/Kelly Ryan