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For Eye Surgeon Jayant V Iyer, Saving the World From Blindness is His Life’s Work

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

But when the Covid-19 crisis hit, he harnessed his NGO experience to expand his mission’s remit, both in Singapore and India

Dr Jayant V Iyer

Like many in Singapore’s healthcare ecosystem, Jayant V Iyer bravely volunteered to help manage the Covid-19 outbreak among dormitory-based migrant workers last year. But when he arrived at one of the affected dormitories, the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) eye surgeon registered a sense of uncertainty among the workers. He quickly harnessed his organisational skills from running non-profit organisation The Vision Mission to establish SingHealth’s Holistic Response and Outreach Team to help manage the outbreak that had affected over 50,000 migrant workers who were stuck in the dormitories.

“We got together a team of doctors who could speak Bengali or Tamil and volunteer translators to assess and listen to the workers’ concerns and to understand their situation. Then we brought together the various resources that Singapore has, including the healthcare authorities and NGOs, to offer them the care they needed,” says the head of SNEC’s Clinical and Service Quality departments. These included psychosocial support, management of chronic medical conditions, and organising activities such as English and yoga lessons to keep the workers occupied.

“It was a fulfilling experience to be able to bring some of my organisational humanitarian experience from overseas countries to help solve the problem in our own country,” says Dr Iyer, who was awarded The Courage Fund Healthcare Humanity Award 2020 and the Heroes Award at the Singapore Health Quality Service Awards 2021.

The 40-year-old clinical assistant professor co-founded The Vision Mission in 2014 to ensure eye care is more equitably distributed around the world and to eradicate treatable blindness. “About 80 per cent of vision impairment is treatable or curable either by the provision of glasses or cataract surgery.”

The Singapore‑based organisation focuses on training the local doctors where it operates to perform the procedures and surgery that are needed to restore a person’s sight. “We find local unsung heroes who are going beyond the call of duty and we train, support and empower them,” says Dr Iyer.

This strategy is in part inspired by his 2011 humanitarian trip to Odisha, one of the poorest states in India, where he met Dr Shivaprasad Sahoo. “I was amazed that with minimal resources he was still able to achieve good outcomes and give people their vision back,” describes Dr Iyer. Since then, he has been working with Dr Sahoo to offer eye care services in this region.

To date, The Vision Mission has trained doctors in Myanmar, Vietnam and India, and has also organised surgeries for over 10,000 people in the region. In his personal capacity, Dr Iyer also trains doctors in Singapore and other parts of the world, including Mongolia, China and Kenya.

This year, at the peak of the Covid-19 outbreak in India, he helped The Vision Mission’s team of healthcare providers in Odisha pivot to running two Covid-19 care centres. Besides establishing a Covid Care Fund to procure oxygen cylinders, medicine and fund services, he knew it was essential for the team to establish a protocol for treating patients.

“I assembled a team of volunteers and physicians and set up an expert committee available for consult through WhatsApp. We also established the simplest evidence‑based protocol in terms of triaging patients so that the care centres could better manage patient care and optimise resource utilisation,” he says. His anaesthetist wife, Dr Srividhya Jayant Iyer, is also on the panel.

Interestingly, it was his experience with Covid-19 management in Singapore that helped Dr Iyer address some of the issues that the doctors in India were facing. “I learnt how to scale up initiatives so that targeted action plans could bring about a larger impact and brought a little bit of that management perspective when advising our team on the frontlines in managing the Covid‑19 crisis in India,” he says.

The Covid Care Fund, which has raised over $80,000 to date, is still accepting contributions and is moving to tackle pandemic preparedness and other areas neglected during the Covid-19 wave, with a focus on unaddressed vision‑related morbidity.

In the meantime, Dr Iyer continues to pursue his calling of ophthalmic humanitarian work by helming SNEC’s Global Ophthalmology office. Launched last year to advance the practice of world-class eye care in underserved regions of Asia by educating and training eye care professionals, the office also collaborates on research projects with regional ophthalmic centres and creates global research fellowship exchange opportunities.

While the pandemic has hampered travel, it has also spurred the team to harness technology in creative ways such as Zoom training or studying how to use artificial intelligence to help diagnose eye problems of patients in other countries. He says, “Covid‑19 accelerated our adoption of technology and what is exciting is that we can bring eye care to where it previously was not available.”

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