By Kristi Garrett
The Affordable Care Act created a sea change in the health care industry when it put the emphasis on preventative medicine and early diagnosis to control costs. Optometrists are at the forefront of that effort, often being the first health care provider to spot the signs of systemic disease. As Chief Eye Care Officer for United Health Care, Linda Chous, OD, who also served as president of the Minnesota Optometric Association, is steering a course toward greater public and professional awareness of the role optometrists play in public health.
In a foundational study for UHC, Dr. Chous and Thomas L. Knabel, MD, of Optum counted eight chronic conditions that are commonly discovered by eye care practitioners: diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, multiple sclerosis, juvenile and adult rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and Graves disease. “Since [eye care practitioners] often see patients more frequently than [primary care providers], this provides an excellent opportunity for optometrists to re-engage patients into care for their chronic conditions that may have been otherwise lost to follow-up,” the researchers concluded in “Impact of Eye Exams in Identifying Chronic Conditions.” “This previously overlooked role for eye care may create improved health outcomes and cost avoidance.”
Dr. Chous followed up that study in a paper with Kim K. Christopher, MBA, quantifying opportunities to re-engage patients into care for their chronic conditions.
“If we can identify those conditions early and get them into care,” she says, “those savings — and I’m not just talking about costs, but also quality of life — are going to be so much better, since these people will be saved from the consequences of their chronic conditions.”
Dr. Chous makes it her aim to educate UHC members and the public about the importance of regular exams. She posts brief videos in the “Ask the Expert” series on the UHC website dealing with such topics as preventive eye care, children’s eye care, heart health and computer vision syndrome. To address health literacy, she creates educational content that is written at a level that’s easily understandable. “Communication only makes a difference if people understand what you’re saying,” she says.
Although she’s very proud of the work she does with children in her pediatric optometry practice, The Glasses Menagerie in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Dr. Chous is grateful for her position at United Healthcare which provides her with the opportunity to help people create healthier lives. She leads a team at UHC that manages the Bridge2Health program, a health and wellness program that monitors chronic conditions and includes reminder phone calls for patients who have not had an eye exam and also drives disease management referrals.
“Everybody talks about the eye doctor’s part in identification of chronic disease — and that’s true, of course. But the re-engagement piece is absolutely huge, because too many patients are lost to follow-up for their conditions,” says Dr. Chous. “When you look at something like hypertension or diabetes — especially Type 2 diabetes — the symptoms, especially in the early stages, can be quite subtle. I have the opportunity to change the world with every patient I see in practice, but your amount of success is often based on the number of people you reach. And working at United Health Care has given me that opportunity to expand the public awareness of the important role the optometrist plays in health care.”