When Jennifer Talbot took the reins 28 years ago at Prevent Blindness North Carolina, she was responsible for ushering in a flurry of new technology. Today the state-funded organization screens more than half a million children each year in all 100 counties. Here Talbot talks about outreach and the importance of treating vision problems early on.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception about blindness and vision issues?
A: Parents believe they would know if their child couldn’t see. If a preschool child has amblyopia (lazy eye), it needs to be corrected very early. My stepson was diagnosed with amblyopia about a year after I started my job at Prevent Blindness. We thought it was an ear problem. He was 8 and had already lost some permanent vision. It could happen to anybody.
Q: One in four school-age children will have some eye problems. Why is it so important to diagnose and treat those problems early?
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A: There’s a strong relationship between the brain and the eye. Particularly for childhood vision screening problems — if that problem stays with the child through early brain development, it’s very hard to correct vision later and much more expensive. Catching it early, we can get people to treatment before they lose sight they can’t recover.
Q: How much does it cost your organization to screen people for vision problems?
A: It’s inexpensive; our children’s programs a lot of times are $1 a child. We’re able to get an awful lot of volume. We currently see over 500,000 children a year and 5,000 adults. It’s an exciting time.
Q: What are the main culprits of blindness and poor sight?
A: It could be a cancer, a tumor — pretty rare, but pretty awful if it happens. As you start to go through childhood, you pick up a lot more acuity problems, being nearsighted or farsighted, and that does have an impact on a child’s ability to learn if they can’t see as well. For adults, you have cataracts, macular degeneration, which we used to not screen for because it was just bad news; there was nothing we could do. But a lot of progress has been made with eye disease. We’re not preventing blindness if we just find something that has no prevention piece.
Q: What’s new in the field in terms of technology?
A: Artificial intelligence — are people going to screen using their iPhone? Our doctors take new screening equipment into their practices to compare against other equipment for accuracy. We have a lot of good partners.
Before, our tools for preventing blindness and identifying things like glaucoma weren’t very good. It wasn’t very rewarding sometimes, and it wasn’t very helpful because we were trying to find people with elevated pressure, but we’d over-diagnose or under-diagnose.
Q: Your organization screens 5,000 adults a year. Where do the screenings take place?
A: We have some big venues where we can screen adults for free, and the N.C. State Fair is one of those. We screen over 2,000 at the fair for retinal and acuity screening, and then we do bigger screenings like the Southern Women’s show. Women are actually one of our target groups; they’re more apt to skip getting their eye exam.
We also work with the community health centers, free clinics, rural health centers and ... we have a good model for telemedicine. Our target is diabetic patients, more than anything else. Diabetic retinopathy is easy to detect with retinal screening. Donor doctors on our board and others in the community read the images and send them back.
Q: You plan to retire at the end of the year. What has continued to motivate you to do this work?
A: I really didn’t think I’d stay (this long) because I like change. The neat thing is change was happening anyway. There was always another new thing that came that could enable us to do bigger things. I never ever got bored.
Jennifer Talbot — Tar Heel of the Week
Born: Feb. 18, 1954, in Martinsville, Va.
Organization: Prevent Blindness North Carolina; nc.preventblindness.org
Education: ECU; studied music therapy and education, earned a master’s degree in counseling
Hobby: She plays guitar in a band.
Free screenings at the State Fair: Free vision screenings are available for adults at the N.C. State Fair through Oct. 21. They are in booths 30 and 31 in the Education Building.