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Vietnam's Pediatric Refractive Error Training Center prepares students amid growing myopia cases


Robert Weiss, former president and CEO of The Cooper Companies, shares some of the latest optometric schooling developments from Vietnam in his work with Optometry Giving Sight, the Brian Holden Foundation, and Hanoi Medical University.

Long-time Optometry Giving Sight (OGS) donor and former President and CEO of The Cooper Companies Robert Weiss, BS, recounts his visit to Hanoi Medical University's Pediatric Refractive Error Training Center (PRETC) in Hanoi, Vietnam, a new facility that he helped establish. Weiss sat down with Optometry Times' Assistant Managing Editor Emily Kaiser Maharjan to detail the immense progress that has been made to combat myopia in the country.

Video Transcript

Editor's note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Emily Kaiser Maharjan:

Hi everyone. I'm here with Robert Weiss, former President and CEO of CooperCompanies and one of the largest individual donors to Optometry Giving Site, or OGS. He recently visited Hanoi, Vietnam to see firsthand the OGS-supported work being done to expand optometry in the country. He met with optometry students and pediatric eye care patients, and he's here today to share some of his reflections. So welcome, thank you for taking the time to chat today.

Robert Weiss, BS:
My pleasure.

Kaiser Maharjan:
Of course. So you've worked with Optometry Giving Sight, the Brian Holden Foundation, and Hanoi Medical University (HMU) to establish the Pediatric Refractive Error Training Center in Hanoi in Vietnam's first optometry school. This was your first time visiting the facilities, correct?

It is correct.

Kaiser Maharjan:
Yeah, fantastic. So can you tell me a little bit more about the experience of pulling the project together, and, you know, what it meant to you to see it come to fruition in this way?

Sure. The project started in, from my perspective, about 2019, when I met with representatives of Optometry Giving Sight, actually here in Pleasanton, [CA] where I'm situated right now, and we talked over breakfast about the pandemic of myopia around the world. In particular, we got on to Vietnam and the fact that, as I thought about the pandemic, and I thought about Vietnam, it was mentioned to me that there are essentially no optometrists in Vietnam. And it's a population of 93 million people with very few professionals to deal with the emerging amount of myopia that's rapidly taking over the planet.

From there, I basically said, "Well, if I can influence it, I have a lot of tie-in with Vietnam from the point of view of having been there in the service in 1969 and 1970. I'd like to give back something to the country, if I can possibly do that." Well, it's kind of step one, and what turned out to be a, "Well if you want to do something like that, maybe we can set up clinic tied in with the Hanoi Medical University and start influencing the profession." In particular, what I was trying to do was develop the optometry profession in the country of Vietnam.

Kaiser Maharjan:
Alright, sounds great. So the eye care at the PRETC have performed thousands of eye exams and vision screenings, as well as dispensing over 4000 pairs of eyeglasses, which is incredible, and that's since its inception in 2019. So what does it mean for you to give back to the Vietnamese community in this way?

Well, it was incredible to see it firsthand. We got stuck in the middle of COVID[-19], so I was gonna go over there a couple of years ago, and then COVID[-19] hit, and we put the whole thing on the back burner. Maybe there was a silver lining there because the program really developed over the last several years and what I saw, firsthand literally blew my thinking away. They accomplished so much with so little that I said, "You know, I really can influence and develop here...They need money. They have the capability and the desire and, clearly, the eye. What I saw firsthand was just how much myopia is taking over the younger generation in Vietnam, which is conducive of the entire world, of course.

Kaiser Maharjan:
Yeah, absolutely. HMU's optometry school is also proving to be quite successful with 233 trained optometrists who have graduated from the school and 78 students who are currently enrolled. Do you hope to see this program grow in the coming years?

Absolutely, I'd like to see it expand beyond just Hanoi, a lot greater expansion in Saigon, which is Ho Chi Minh City, of course, and another location Vung Tau. When I was in Vietnam, Vung Tau was the in-country [rest and recreation leave] R&R where all the military people that were not going to leave Vietnam, on their breaks, stayed in-country and went to Vung Tau. So there are 3 cities [for expansion]. I clearly came out of there with the impression [that] it's going to be very difficult to transition the profession from the city, or the urban areas, into the rural areas where they don't have the infrastructure over the foreseeable future.

So I think a picture was worth 1000 words, and I was able to watch them screen over 400 students while I was at the school, where they were doing a screening. So it made a infinite impression on me as far as what they can do. It also made a huge impression to see them screening 400 students of which 80% had myopia, which is conducive of a number that's frequently thrown out for the younger generation because they're spending a lot more time indoors and outdoors. It was clear that that is an influencer in the equation, that lack of outdoor time, where you have natural sunlight, is clearly an impact. I know that firsthand because I was a farm boy with no corrective vision, went to college, start studying a lot. By the time I finished college, I had myopia, because I was getting a lot less sunlight.

Kaiser Maharjan:
Absolutely, and do you have a particular experience from your latest trip that really touched you they'd like to share?

Yeah, I think the experience of the enthusiasm of the group that they're training to screen the eyes was incredible. On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 10. (It was a) reconfirmation on just how bad myopia is in the younger generation, and the fact that are our students willing to come into the program. I was able to meet with the new class of 78 students in their introduction to the program one night, and that was an awesome experience also.

I also met with 3 individuals that had received their glasses at Pediatric Refractive Error Training Center, and I asked each one individually, "Did their parents have correct division?" Not 1 of the 6 parents had corrective vision, and all the 3 kids had myopia. So it kind of reconfirmed what is going on, who is very convinced with the people I met, they are capable of managing and expanding the program.

So as we get more ODs in Vietnam, going from what I described as 1 per 50,000, compared to the US, which is 1 per less than 10,000 people. We have a huge need. Actually, it's 1 per 100,000 right now in Vietnam. Rapidly, we'll move to 1 for 50,000. But there's a lot of work to be done. I was able to tell the students, "Be prepared to work long hours. The need is there. So hopefully, you're coming into the profession with your eyes wide open," and the fact that the need is immense. That's even before we overlay the equation of the increasing rate of myopia, as more and more people around the planet spend more time indoors and less time in natural outdoor light.

Kaiser Maharjan:
Absolutely, and you are currently [one of] Optometry Giving Site's largest individual donor[s]. What is it about that organization that inspires you to give so generously?

Well, number 1, I've spent over 40 years in eye care, dating back to, essentially, when I came back from Vietnam. My wife worked in a hospital, Columbia-Presbyterian in New York City. Our first job was New York City where she worked in the eye hospital and I was an auditor. From there, one of my clients was Cooper, and I ultimately went and joined Cooper in 1977. So I've been with Cooper Companies a long time, including Coopervision, which is number 1 in wearer base in the world for contact lenses and number 2 in contact lenses in revenue worldwide. So I've spent my career, if you will, and my life, in eye care.

Kaiser Maharjan:
Absolutely, that's fantastic. Do you have any other reflections that you'd like to share?

Only just how big is what's going on in the world, and how big is the task. I can't reiterate enough. There are essentially 1.6 billion children, the ages 8 to 20, that are continuing to develop myopia. The great news is we now have some some vehicles to help minimize myopia.

As we all know, that if we let myopia expand into a high diopter, which elongates the eye, then when all these children get older, they're going to run into major problems with eye sight. When they get to 65 and over, they'll have glaucoma, they'll have retinal detachments, they'll have macular degeneration, they'll have cataracts. If we can help minimize that risk by dealing with the generation that is now in that, call it the sweet spot, of developing myopia, which is really 6 to 20, then we have a major need.

As parents and grandparents, in my case grandparents, we all want to do what we can to improve the health and quality of life of our children as they go forward.

Kaiser Maharjan:
Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today. It's been an absolute pleasure. It's been lovely to hear more about this initiative, so thank you so much.

You are most welcome.

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