orbis flying eye hospital boarding patients

One of the many things that distinguishes HealthTap from traditional healthcare is its global reach – the ability to provide access to healthcare from anywhere in the world. In a similar way, a nonprofit called Orbis is taking flight to bring better eyesight to millions around the world.

Recently, the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital landed for one of its periodic resupply runs at the Moffett Federal Airfield—not far from HealthTap’s offices in Silicon Valley. I was fortunate enough to be invited onboard for a private tour.

From my first step on board, I could tell this hospital was something unique. It’s the only FedEx plane in the world converted and licensed to carry passengers, according to my guide, ophthalmologist Hunter Cherwek, Director of Clinical Services at Orbis.

Flying Eye Hospital OR
Looking into the OR of the Orbis Eye Hospital from a hallway, via a glass reflecting one of the plane’s windows

Behind a 46-seat area that doubles as a classroom, the section over the wing is a U.S.-accredited ambulatory surgery center that performed 386,752 eye surgeries and laser procedures from 2013 to 2017. Once on the ground at a destination, other than requiring a set of boarding stairs and jet refueling, the plane is self-sufficient, carrying its own power generators, air and water purification, and medical supplies.

Training local doctors to improve their community’s eyesight

As impressive as the volume of surgeries is, the real benefit of the plane to global health is in the many local doctors the Orbis team trains — 11,927 in that same 2013-2017 period. This on-board training program is run by 400 volunteer ophthalmologists, nurses, anesthesiologists, and biomedical engineers from around the world. In addition, by recording procedures performed on the plane, doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists who have never even set foot on the aircraft can receive training through Orbis’ CyberSight online videos and webinars.

At one point, I was able to try my hand at cataract surgery through a simulation lab available on the plane—obviously a safer way to train than on actual patients.

With patients’ families on board the plane in a waiting area during surgeries, and adult patients actually conscious during a cataract or retina surgery, a crucial part of training is communication skills, Cherwek says.

“No matter what language you’re in, everyone knows the word ‘oops’,” he says. “You’ve got to learn how to communicate with an awake patient, and make sure everyone feels confident and calm.”

The Orbis global learning platform, of which the plane is merely a part, leverages simulation technology to add quantitative feedback to the human feedback provided in the classroom. “The simulation can say a surgeon took 19.2 seconds to do a step, and your microtremor was this much,” Cherwek says.

Some of the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital staff
Orbis Flying Eye hospital head nurse Angela Purcell, director of clinical services Hunter Cherwek, and Flying Eye Hospital head of clinical services Antonio Jaramillo (L to R) on board during its recent Silicon Valley resupply run.

After a couple of weeks in one developing nation, it’s time to securely stow all the medical equipment for a FedEx-piloted flight to another destination. But six to eight weeks after the plane leaves, one of Orbis’ staff doctors returns on another plane to check how all the patients are doing. Thanks to Orbis, some of these patients have gained the ability to see for the first time ever.

Eyesight followup checks, with teddy bears

Children are often waiting for these followup visits, clutching the teddy bears Orbis staff gave them during their time on the plane. Orbis’ efforts help increase these children’s prospects for long, happy, healthy, productive lives. Local doctors impacted by Orbis retain valuable skills and knowledge to help others. Nearly 75 percent of the world’s visual impairment is preventable or treatable, and 89 percent of vision-impaired people live in the developing world. This 75 percent of the 253 million worldwide who are visually impaired could be treated, or their impairment prevented by proper care, and in more than 50 percent of childhood blindness cases, sight could be restored with early intervention and comprehensive treatment.

Thinking globally about access to quality healthcare should be everyone’s mission. Every person deserves to be able to connect and talk with a doctor to access the treatment they need. Orbis’ flying eye hospital is a shining symbol of this, circling the globe and making an impact in the remotest of places with the greatest need. It can be an inspiration to us all.

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Scott Mace

Writer at HealthTap. You may have read my work at HealthLeaders Media, BoardWatch, InfoWorld, or even the Village Voice if you go back far enough.

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