Loyola Ophthalmology Department Helping Expand Services at Guatemalan Hospital

Loyola Medicine’s Department of Ophthalmology is teaming up with Humanity First Healthcare Services to expand the care capacity of Nasir Hospital.

Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine’s Ophthalmology Department is partnering with Humanity First Healthcare Services, a low-profit corporation, to grow the ophthalmology service line at Nasir Hospital in Sacatepéquez, Guatemala.

The project aims to expand the care capacity and enable local staff to provide more surgical services at Nasir Hospital, located in the country’s south-central region, opened by Humanity First Healthcare Services’ nonprofit parent company Humanity First in 2018. 

Ophthalmology is a technology-driven surgical specialty which manages a variety of routine and complex eye diseases. While optometrists are non-surgeons who play an important role in routine care, ophthalmology is a subspecialty which integrates the other systems of the body.

Dr. Charles Bouchard, chairman of Stritch’s ophthalmology department, said the project involves expanding ophthalmological care at the hospital, increasing inpatient capacity, establishing a data science program and developing mobile health clinics with AI-capable examination equipment.

Bouchard, who first visited Guatemala for an investigational trip in 2008, said Nasir Hospital currently has an ophthalmologist on site about once per week to provide basic non-surgical care and an optometrist on-site daily, but the partnership’s provision of new equipment in addition to visiting staff is meant to expand care options and accessibility.

A mission to the hospital was scheduled for Oct. 21 to 29 but was postponed this month due to political unrest in Guatemala, according to Majid Khan, chairman and CEO of Humanity First Healthcare Services. Bouchard said the team is aiming to reschedule the trip for February or April.

This month’s mission was planned to include three surgeons from Loyola Medicine, three from Virginia, two from the United Kingdom and one from California, Bouchard said. The rescheduled trip will mostly involve the same participants and will still have the same target of performing 100 surgeries, according to Khan.

Loyola became involved in the Guatemalan project because of the ophthalmology department’s history of providing optometric care in the country since 2001, which became more surgery-focused after Bouchard’s visit in 2008, according to Bouchard.

“It was easy to get to, it was relatively safe, not much travel, and the work needed there is tremendous,” Bouchard said.

Khan said the organization operates on a sustainable health care model, a system where patients are charged a fraction of the standard cost for a procedure or service. Khan said patients aren’t charged for resources that were donated to the organization.

Bouchard said the partnership was formalized in July following a series of surgical mission trips organized by Loyola and Humanity First beginning in 2011. Members of Stritch’s ophthalmology department first visited the hospital after its completion in 2018, Bouchard said.

The ophthalmology department has sent staff to Guatemala one to two times per year to perform about 75 cataract surgeries per trip since 2011, Bouchard said. Loyola’s trips — which include faculty, a resident and sometimes a technician — are funded by the Thomas A. Stamm Endowment of about $18,000 per year, according to Bouchard.

Humanity First partnered with Loyola due to the mutual familiarity between the organizations after over a decade of collaboration on a mission-to-mission basis, according to Khan.

Humanity First Healthcare Services was incorporated as a subsidiary of Humanity First in 2017 to build and manage hospitals for the company, according to Khan. Its Gift of Sight program, under which the missions operate, is mostly self-funded by participants, Khan said.

Bouchard said Gift of Sight was founded by Stritch resident Ahsan Khan and launched its first mission in 2011, with operations now active in Guatemala, Burkina Faso and Mali. Its teams have performed almost 4,000 vision-restoring surgeries across the three countries since 2016, according to Humanity First’s website.

Loyola Medicine contributed $12,000 to the program through the endowment, which covers logistics, hospital expenses, staff and renting of equipment, according to Khan.

Khan said he met Bouchard in 2017 while Nasir Hospital was under construction. He said he found Bouchard and, by extension, Loyola’s ophthalmology department to be a natural partner in the project because of his willingness to help.

Bouchard said expanding access to the type of care provided by the program is essential to public health, especially in developing countries.

“So much of the problem internationally is just access,” Bouchard said. “People don’t have transportation, they can’t get there, they can’t follow up. And so that’s where the mobile health clinics are going to become critically important to access patients to provide the care.”

Second-year medical students Kailyn Janiga and Jeff Harting work with Bouchard on the program. Harting said the team’s weekly meetings involve discussions of strategy, logistics and epidemiology research. 

The meetings are used to plan out the expansion of the ophthalmology services and outline the research they’ll be conducting there, according to Janiga. She also said the meetings are used to organize efforts to obtain supplies from vendors, strategize for patient outreach and manage travel documents for participants in the missions.

The research focuses on the prevalence of eye diseases among members of the rural community where Sacatepéquez is located, Janiga said.

Janiga said she has an interest in community and global health so she reached out to Bouchard last October to explore her options for work in the field.

“Something I feel passionate about is reaching out to underserved communities and trying to improve them in any way that I feasibly can,” Janiga said. “As a med student, I obviously can’t get in there and do surgeries, but I know that I still have capabilities to go in, I can do the research aspect, Jeff and I can try to implement educational programs.”

Harting said he sought ophthalmology research projects from Bouchard last year because he knew he wanted to pursue the field at Loyola.

“I’ve always wanted to be able to do something that I could hang my hat on and be like, ‘Yeah, I did that, I helped someone,’” Harting said. “I have this impact that will last longer than me.”

Featured image provided by Dr. Charles Bouchard

Colin Hart

Colin Hart