PODCAST: Dr Sarah Crowe Is Making Improved Eyesight Accessible to All Though 4eyesVision

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08 March 2023

According to ophthalmologist Dr Sarah Crowe, who recently joined the MTPConnect Podcast, one billion people worldwide have impaired vision because they can’t access affordable glasses. And that is a challenge she had to tackle.

By day, Dr Crowe attends to patients in a private practice in Maroubra, Sydney, looking after general eye conditions including cataracts, glaucoma, and diabetes-related eye disease and specialising in eyelid surgery, skin cancer removal and reconstruction. In August 2017, she decided to join her husband, a professor of Surgery at University of NSW, who regularly travels to the Solomon Islands to help train surgeons and assist with surgery. As well as assisting with this work, she sought opportunities to volunteer at eye clinics.

One clinic she volunteered at was run by an eye nurse. Patients streamed in, many of whom had blurred vision and needed glasses including one patient, a security guard, who couldn’t see very well.

“I tested his prescription. I knew what he needed, which was quite a thick pair of glasses. But the nurse said that the only place you could get those glasses was in Honiara. The patient would have to travel by boat for four hours and nobody went to Honiara unless they were dying. And even if they went, they couldn't afford to get a pair of glasses anyway.”

Dr Crowe was shocked. The nurse directed her to a dusty carton of mostly donated glasses in the cupboard in order to find a pair of glasses for the patient.

“The only thing I found anywhere close to what he needed were these pink Dame Edna-type of glasses. There was no way this guy was going to wear them so I just came back into the office scratching my head...and the day after that volunteer stint at the clinic, I was out shopping at the markets and noticed that nobody wore glasses.”

She encountered this issue with many people she met during the trip - blurred vision without access to an affordable pair of glasses. It was a lightbulb moment for Dr Crowe.

“When I got back, I started learning more about it and that's when I realised the extent of the problem. It's the largest cause of avoidable vision loss in the world, and yet it doesn't get the attention that cataract surgery gets. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the most important thing is getting glasses. I think part of the problem is that it’s almost too simple and it’s not very sexy. It's just a cheap pair of glasses and people like to support fancy cataract operations. It's just one of those things that has fallen through the cracks. As an ophthalmologist I committed my life to helping people see. And I realised, I could do 1000 - 2000 cataract operations but I could affect millions of people if I get this right.”

MTPConnect Podcast hosts Caroline Duell and Dr Duncan Macinnis chat to Dr Sarah Crowe about her clinician entrepreneur journey

So, Dr Crowe set out to develop a portable testing kit to provide affordable glasses on the spot for people in remote and developing communities.

Dr Crowe examined the way professionals test for glasses and simplified the process, removing the jargon and unnecessary steps to make the process of producing a prescription easy to understand by a lay person, she said. This included designing a machine that was durable and portable and could be folded up and taken wherever you needed to go, along with testing equipment, the frames and pre-cut lenses so the glasses can be assembled on the spot. This avoided the time lag of having them delivered later, which was a major barrier to getting glasses for many living in remote areas. The 4eyesVision kit was born!

A mobile application ties everything together. Its 200 stainless steel frames and parts can be easily reordered using the mobile app. It was important to Dr Crowe to have as much of the kit made out of recycled plastic. The first production of frames was manufactured in China but she is now looking at manufacturing options in India.

Winning the 2020 Australian Technologies Competition’s Global Social Impact category and first prize in the UNSW Founders Program and working with organisations like the Kokoda Track Foundation in Papua New Guinea has helped progress her 4eyesVision innovation. Now, the project needs further funding to scale up the not-for-profit enterprise. Dr Crowe has set up a foundation to help fund the project through a ‘for profit’ business model.

“What we really need now is funding to hire people because it's one thing to get people to help and to pitch in. But what we really need is people to work on this full-time and really get it off the ground.”

Listen to the MTPConnect Podcast to hear all about Sarah’s efforts as a clinician entrepreneur. And visit 4eyesVision to find out more.