Optometrists are valuable not just for health, but also for the economy.

Unfortunately, Mississippi is losing those eye care professionals and starting to have more areas without them, Mississippi Optometric Association Executive Director Linda Ross Aldy told the McComb Lions Club.

She showed a map of the state, created in the past couple of years, with 77 of 82 counties shaded to show MOA members practicing there.

Since the map was developed, however, five counties have lost the optometric practices they had.

“Three of those counties are in your area,” Aldy said, pointing out Franklin, Jefferson and Walthall counties in Southwest Mississippi. Losing that access “is not an area you want to be leading in.”

Aldy said the state has had a “brain drain” of 27 existing or prospective optometrists in the past year who either moved out of state or sat for the licensure examination but never practiced in the state.

Part of the problem, she said, is that other states, including all of the states bordering Mississippi, allow optometrists to perform more procedures than they are allowed to do in Mississippi.

“Surrounding states allow optometrists to practice at higher levels and use all of their training,” Aldy said.

She said MOA has lobbied the Legislature to allow optometrists to perform more procedures. None of the procedures requested require anesthesia and are not required to be done by surgical centers in many other states.

“Some of these procedures take about 60 seconds,” Aldy said. “For a sty, if you can pull it off with tweezers, an optometrist is allowed to do that. If it takes a scalpel, that’s not allowed. Your optometrist has to refer you to someone else instead of addressing the problem in two or three minutes. That costs patients another co-pay and the time to make another office visit.”

Economically, Aldy said the opening of a new practice can add $1.45 million to the local economy, while the loss of an established practice can cost the economy up to $7.83 million.

Mississippi’s efforts to recruit new optometrists are complicated by the fact that the state has no optometry programs, so state residents who leave the  for training may elect to remain near where they trained or go elsewhere rather than return to Mississippi.

Aldy joked that optometry shouldn’t be confused with other “O” medical fields, like orthodontics, ophthalmology or obstetrics.

“We don’t have anything to do with birthing babies,” she said.

More seriously, though, she said the eyes can be a window into wider health concerns than just vision.

The eyes are the only organs of the body where blood vessels can be seen without making an incision, she said.

Optometrists can look at the blood vessels there and see signs of problems ranging from heart disease and high blood pressure to high cholesterol, and even to warning signs of stroke, diabetes, multiple sclerosis or tumors.

Because of that, “the eye is called the most important square inch on the body,” Aldy said. “Eye doctors don’t just give you glasses or vision correction. It goes much deeper.”

Optometry practices offer “cradle to grave” care, she said, with many optometrists participating in the national Infantsee program, which provides free eye exams for children 6 to 12 months old.

That service can help children who might be though developmentally delayed because of difficulties learning to sit up or walk that are due instead to vision problems.

Many optometrists also offer eye exams for third-graders who fail the state’s reading test for passage to the fourth grade. When the test was first implemented, MOA members immediately offered eye exams to all students who failed; Aldy said 88% were found to need vision assistance.

She said MOA has lobbied to have eye exams required before children start school, but the Legislature passed a law that only recommended an eye exam before children start school.

Aldy argued that requiring the exams, “for those that it would help, would put more children on the road to success earlier than if they fail third grade and then get tested.”

As people age into their 40s and later, it’s common for people to need more light, visual correction to make printed materials seem closer or farther, help with color perception or ways to address glare and dry eye.

She urged people to see a doctor as soon as possible for floaters, flashes of light and suddenly distorted vision or loss of peripheral vision.

She also noted that addressing cataracts or macular degeneration can help the elderly avoid devastating falls.

Aldy informed the group that McComb native Ryan Wally, who practices in Oxford and serves as MOA’s legislative chair, was named the state’s Optometrist of the Year and will be considered for honor as the Southeast and perhaps national winner.

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