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iAware driving mission to protect vision in underserved regions


Through its #isee4$1 campaign, the organization is helping to bring sight to Cambodia.

(Image Credit: AdobeStock/natali_mis)

(Image Credit: AdobeStock/natali_mis)

When it comes to eye health, iAware Inc is setting its sights on training Cambodian ophthalmologists while providing services and raising awareness of ocular diseases among the nation’s population.

iAware is a non-for-profit organization, founded by AnnMarie Hipsley, DPT, PhD, and its beneficiary is the Khmer Sight Foundation. Hipsley has been an entrepreneur for more than 24 years is also the founder and CEO of Ace Vision Group, Inc, a medical device company innovating ophthalmic therapeutic technologies for the aging eye.

In a conversation with Ophthalmology Times, Hipsley explained that her passion arose during a trip to Cambodia, during which she witnessed some of the desperation in the country, stemming from genocide in the 1970s and a population that includes may people who once were refugees. She made the trip with Sunil Shah, MD, FRCOphth, and fell in love with the country and the cause of the Khmer Sight Foundation.

“I realized that there was a great need there, and also a great need for awareness of these people who are basically a geopolitical entity that are really forgotten,” she said. “I felt that it was a huge unmet need, and just felt driven to be connected to it. “

Indeed, the need is real. According to iAware, more than 180,000 Cambodians are blind, and another 10,000 suffer avoidable blindness each year. There are just 32 ophthalmologists to serve a population of more than 15 million Cambodians. With support from the government, the organization was poised to provide assistance.

“We had friends and colleagues that everyone knows in refractive and ophthalmology surgery,” Hipsley recounted. “And there was already a mission there and it was running really well.”

Sean Ngu​, an iAware board member and founder Khmer Sight Foundation​, was instrumental in paving the way for the missions, which featured teams from Singapore, Iraq and other parts of the globe, and Hipsley was poised to help drive these efforts, and take them to the next level.

“I really became impressed with the infrastructure, the support, and the impact that it was having,” Hipsley said “A lot of times when you go on a mission trip, it's one and done. And this wasn't like that.”

And that was the genesis of iAware, with a goal of helping educate the country’s population about the type of blindness that is preventable. Hipsley also wanted to give on a social level.

“Knowing the people that you give to, and being part of their lives and really connecting with them socially is important, “ she said. “That's how I got involved in it.”

Today, it helps drive her commitment to the organization, and as she sees the results of its efforts during every trip, Hipsley is inspired to ensure she can keep the missions going.

At the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery 2023 annual meeting, iAware was able to raise $176,070, which has helped fund an effort to provide eyeglasses in underserved regions.

Donny Suh​, MD, and inventor James Hermsen developed the Omni 3-D printed eyeglasses, a one-size-fits-all frame, which can accept lenses for adults or children.

“We were funding the machine, and also the plastic materials, as well as attempting to fund enough to buy lenses for 5000 glasses to fit children and adults,” Hipsley said.

The campaign is #isee4$1 ("I see for one dollar") which has a goal of raising money for eyeglasses. The frames can be printed for just $1.

“We challenged people by considering how many Starbucks coffees they can miss out on,” Hipsley said. “Just one and you could buy five people a pair of eyeglasses.”

The campaign proved to be a success, and with the equipment the organization had its mission in sight.

The organization receives sponsorship form OSRX, Ace Vision, Staar Surgical and Santen.

“Human capital is just as important as financial capital in this case helping to do all the things we need to do on the mission,” Hipsley said.

Indeed, physicians with connections to the country, such as Cathy McCabe, whose stepfather is Cambodian, stepped up to connect with the mission and donate funds for the machine to produce the eyeglasses. The funds also support the Khmer Sight Foundation​.

During the missions, the support from the government is key to helping the organization transport volunteers into the villages, where they can do screening, reducing the transportation inequities that can prevent at-risk populations from getting the vision care they need.

“We set up tents, and we were able to screen them right where they live,” Hipsley said. “We can capture their data and have the ability to follow up on them.”

The organization also develops partnerships with Living Grace Ministries, which extends the ability to provide additional assistance to patients.

Hipsley noted that two missions are in the works, the first a feasibility study of the 3-D printed glasses campaign #iseefor$1. The second will offer glasses and vision screenings. Ultimately, the success of the organization is measured on multiple levels.

“I would consider any fundraising campaign that has a majority of those funds going to the need as one level of success, and we did this in 2018,” she said. “I would call that marginal success, where we put almost 75% of the funds that were raised are going towards the effort.”

However, as Hipsley explained, the true measure of success of iAware’s efforts is how will it impact the health needs and risks of those people on a continuum.

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