Celebrating Women Leaders in Ophthalmology

Dr. Suma Ganesh

Numerous studies have time and again demonstrated that women in leadership positions in corporates, civil society and Government organizations alike, lead to more creative solutions, an inclusive culture and improved employee engagement and satisfaction.

In healthcare, women play crucial role- by taking up the role of primary caregivers in families and as health workers. Participation of women workforce in healthcare is considerable when it comes to their engagement as nurses-wives, alongside a cadre of close to a million strong frontline health workers, or ASHAs. However, women are not commonly found in very senior positions in the health domain in India.

Orbis, a global NGO is working with a network of eye hospitals and ophthalmologists, including some of the women leaders to mentor and train eye care teams, and provide treatment to children with avoidable blindness.

Dr. Suma Ganesh
, who is currently the Deputy Medical Director, Chairperson, and Head of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus at Dr. Shroff's Charity Eye Hospital in Delhi, is one among them. Back in 2001, Dr. Suma attended the first ever Orbis training in India, intriguing her on the growing field of pediatric ophthalmology and the need of pediatric ophthalmologists in the country. Today, she is one of the most sought-after pediatric ophthalmologists in India and mentors ophthalmologists from Nepal, Bangladesh, and Vietnam. With her support, Orbis India was able to establish a Pediatric Opthalmology unit at Dr. Shroff Eye Hospital in 2001.

Commenting on her collaboration with Orbis, Dr. Ganesh says, “Orbis chose me for a fellowship programme at Manhattan Eye and Neuro Hospital in New York. They then assisted me in establishing a paediatric unit. They assisted with infrastructure, design, protocol development, screening methodology, and surgical procedures in order to make it a world-class standard. Today, the pediatric section at Shroff’s Charity Eye Hospital is one of the leading departments in North India for preventing childhood blindness.”

Dr. Suma Ganesh

Dr. P. Vijayalakshmi

Increase in women participation in healthcare, doesn’t just empower those in the profession, but also impacts other women in the community. It is observed that an increased participation of women staff in vision centers, secondary and tertiary centers lead to an increase in number of women patients seeking and adhering to the treatment. Dr. P. Vijayalakshmi, Chief Medical Consultant, Pediatric Ophthalmology and Adult Strabismus Clinic, and Chief of the Vision Rehabilitation Centre, Aravind Eye Hospital, Madurai, has played an instrumental role in starting a separate full-fledged Department of Pediatric Ophthalmology and Adult Strabismus in 1984, for the first time in the country, opening windows of opportunities for many. She played a catalytic role in establishing pediatric ophthalmology as a promising career proposition and encouraging women to join the force. Dr. Vijayalakshmi says, “By delivering training in the sector, I became intimately interested in making the sub-specialty an exciting job for young ophthalmologists throughout the country and the developing world. While doing that, Orbis showed there is a huge need to not just introduce fellowship for ophthalmologists but provide all-inclusive team trainings in eye care. Recognizing the need for specialised paramedics in the field, I initiated a training program to build capacity of several ophthalmologists, including international candidates, anesthesiologists, orthoptists, and related professionals.”

Dr. Vijayalakshmi has been associated with WHO, PAHO and IAPB in strengthening their childhood blindness programmes in India.

Dr. Sumita Agarkar

Another woman leader who is leading from the front for more than two decades is Dr. Sumita Agarkar, Deputy Director, The Pediatric Ophthalmology Department, Sankara Nethralaya, Chennai. She is at the helm of a highly specialised advanced eye care institution that provides expert diagnosis and treatment for the whole range of pediatric ocular issues.

“There is a wide gap when it comes to awareness on eye conditions in communities. Over my last 23 years of working with children, not even one child with refractive error has come to me saying that they can’t see. With no vision benchmark to compare, children can always find a way to adapt- move closer to backboard in class or seek help from friends. Eye hospitals need to shift perspective from being patient centric to being community centric. Community outreach programs, like Orbis REACH helps reach out to community and other stakeholders, raise awareness on eye conditions and provide services to those who need it most”, shared Dr. Sumita.

Dr. Meenakshi Swaminathan

“Orbis India supported us to set up the first Pediatric Ophthalmology Learning and Training Centre, with a structured curriculum to train eye care professionals to specifically address the needs of children. Today, the Pediatric Ophthalmology department is a preferred treatment location for children from all over India as well as neighbouring countries. At Sankara Nethralaya, around 25,000 pediatric patients are checked and treated each year, with an average of 19,000 pediatric patients,” says Dr Meenakshi Swaminathan, Former Director of Academics, and former senior consultant Pediatric Ophthalmology, Sankara Nethralaya. Under her leadership, Sankara Nethralaya realized the need to set a separate pediatric department at the hospital, giving children the care and attention, they needed. Dr. Meenakshi has also trained numerous ophthalmologists in pediatrics, many of them are women, encouraging them to take up the sub-speciality.

With transformational shift in the last three decades, many women pediatric ophthalmologists are joining forces, globally and in India. Involvement of women pediatric optometrists, orthoptists and vision technicians have also seen an increase over the last few years. Many pediatric ophthalmologists in India especially are involved in teaching both postgraduates and fellows, thereby securing the future for both the speciality and our child patients.

Orbis will continue to celebrate the contribution of many other women leaders in ophthalmology, who have transformed lives of thousands of children by preventing them from going blind and have trained numerous other ophthalmologists. We salute the spirit of these leaders who have set examples for all of us at Orbis.

Watch out this space to know about these women!

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