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HelpMeSee: Bridging gaps in global cataract surgery training in underserved regions


Bonnie An Henderson, MD, leads HelpMeSee to provide advanced cataract surgery training globally, emphasizing humanitarian aid and innovative simulation technology.

Bonnie An Henderson, MD, sat down with Ophthalmology Times to discuss her transition to President and CEO of HelpMeSee, a nonprofit providing virtual reality cataract surgery simulators and training to underserved regions. Henderson emphasizes the organization's humanitarian mission and plans for expanding training centers, including the development of a phacoemulsification simulator, with Group Editorial Director Sheryl Stevenson.

Video Transcript

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

Sheryl Stevenson: We're joined today by Dr. Bonnie An Henderson. Welcome to you! It's so great to see you, and really excited to learn more about your new role as President and CEO with HelpMeSee. Tell me how you got involved in the organization.

Bonnie An Henderson, MD: Great! Thank you for having me, and it's a pleasure to speak with you about HelpMeSee. I was so lucky to have met Jim Ueltschi, who is a founder of HelpMeSee. I met him about maybe about 10 or 15 years ago. And I met him right as he was thinking about starting this organization called HelpMeSee.

At that time, I was creating a virtual reality cognitive cataract surgery simulator program. So I was creating a software computer program to teach people how to perform cataract surgery. And at that time, Jim Ueltschi was considering starting HelpMeSee, which is really an organization that develops the virtual reality physical simulator for cataract surgery. He heard about the work that I was doing, reached out to me, and we had met at that time. We had talked about our projects and our vision and we were hoping to work together at some point.

So fast forward, I completed my computer program and HelpMeSee completed their physical simulator. He reached out to me about 6 months ago and asked me to come and check out their simulator and give my feedback. At the time, I had just decided to retire from clinical ophthalmology and so I had some time. I said, Sure, I'd be happy to.

I went down to their global hub in Jersey City [in New Jersey] and was able to spend a few days with the simulator and really understand what they were trying to do. As part of that conversation, he was looking to make a transition in leadership and had asked me if I would join them as the CEO role. So I was really honored to be considered and very delighted to be a part of the team.

I don't know if you know much about HelpMeSee, but I'd love to tell your audience a little bit about it. Just because it's, I think it's one of the organizations that is just so quiet it flies under the radar. I think it's such an exciting organization. So first of all, it's a nonprofit. It's a 501(c)(3).

And it's really two companies in one. It's a tech company that creates these physical virtual reality cataract surgery simulators. And then the second part is a humanitarian part, where we take the simulators and we actually train people to become competent cataract surgeons, really focusing on the parts of the world...low-income countries, middle-income countries where they don't have enough competent, proficient cataract surgeons. And so their population is suffering because they don't have access to good cataract surgery.

So what Jim Ueltschi and his family wanted to do was, he saw the problem and he wanted to solve it by allowing people to become trained and become proficient cataract surgeons in the reaches of the world where they just don't have that ability. So it's a wonderful mission. He's just a wonderful, incredibly generous human being who has this vision to really take his hard-earned wealth that his family, his father, had accumulated and they signed the Giving Pledge with Bill Gates to say, look, we have this money, what can we do to help humanity. So instead of buying a mansion and a jet and driving fast cars, they're really donating half of their wealth, hundreds of millions of dollars to try to help people who cannot see because of cataracts. So, what a wonderful mission and what a wonderful person to really want to help humanity in that way.

Stevenson: Sounds like a wonderful organization. What are your top priorities for 2024? What do you envision accomplishing or achieving?

Henderson: HelpMeSee currently has centers in India. We have centers in Madagascar, Latin America, and Mexico. We have one in Europe. We have our US hub in Jersey City. And we have several in China.

What we do know is that the countries that have the most amount of people who are blind from cataracts are China is number one, followed very closely by India, as well as Indonesia. So Southeast Asia, and then Latin America.

What I'd love to see in 2024 is that we expand our training center so that we can actually deliver more training and more education to more regions of the world. So I think countries in Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa East and West will be our focus for this year, as well as hopefully focusing on countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Cambodia. They desperately need people who are able to deliver good quality and safe cataract surgery. So I'd love to be able to expand it...really reach more people this coming year.

Stevenson: Certainly a worthwhile endeavor. Is there anything else that you'd like to add that you haven't touched upon?

Henderson: What we'd love to do is, currently, HelpMeSee has a simulator that focuses on manual small incision cataract surgery called MSICS. That really is our focus. But what we've heard is when people hear about our MSICS curriculum training, they also have questions about phacoemulsification.

As you probably know, phacoemulsification is a technique that most of the high-income countries use. That's the technique that is used throughout the US and Europe where cataract surgery is removed by using the help of a machine called phacoemulsification. Unfortunately, the costs of phacoemulsification and the disposals are pretty high so countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Southeast Asia, they cannot really afford phacoemulsification.

In order to deliver cataract surgery, we have to find a less-expensive alternative. That really is MSICS. That's a manual cataract surgery. MSICS has been proven to be very successful, very safe, and the outcomes are excellent so we know that the quality of care is still very high. What we've done is developed an MSICS but then with the rollout of MSICS, we've heard from people that have said, you know, they really want phaco as well. So they would love to use a simulator to be able to roll out training for phacoemulsification.

Because of that HelpMeSee has now created a phacoemulsification simulator. And what I would love to see is be able to let people use that simulator, too. So although countries like the US, we have the ability to have excellent residency programs, they really don't need a lot of adjunct to training. I do think that using simulators in residency programs, even in the US, is extremely useful. It allows the residents to really learn more quickly, more safely. So it really improves patient safety and patient outcomes.

I think there is a role for simulation-based training everywhere. As part of 2024, besides the humanitarian outreach, I would love to see more centers in the US start to use HelpMeSee simulation-based training. I think at this point people don't even know about HelpMeSee. They don't even realize that HelpMeSee has this incredible simulator.

The biggest difference between us and the other simulators that are out there is that our simulator is a high-fidelity simulator, meaning it's very realistic. The most important difference is that we have haptic feedback, which means that we have tactile sensation. When people sit at our simulator and they're actually performing the simulation, they can feel the tissues like they do in real surgery. I think that really differentiates HelpMeSee from the other simulators out there where they may not have any tactile sensation at all. And also, we're not a headset, so we don't have this heavy, hot thing based on our head, we're actually sitting at like an operating microscope. So it really simulates the environment very, very accurately. So because of that, I do think that there's a huge role in using simulators like ours to teach cataract surgeons in the US and Europe, as well as all the other regions of the world. I'm really hoping people understand that there is a simulator out there that is very useful.

We are a nonprofit. We're not trying to make a profit at all whatsoever. Any of the money that's raised if we work with centers in the US is completely spent for the humanitarian mission. Residency programs who choose to work with our simulator can feel really good that the the money that we're raising is purely to help other people. And so it's a win-win situation for everybody—the residents can get great simulation-based training and then we can also help people who actually can't afford the wonderful residency programs and the wonderful physicians that we have in this country.

I'm really really hopeful and very, very enthusiastic that once people start to experience the HelpMeSee simulator, they're really going [to get] to understand what the benefits are and really start to embrace learning manual small-incision cataract surgery and phacoemulsification as well as all the other modules that we're going to build on our simulator.

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