Orbis volunteer trains Zambian doctors remotely on the first virtual Flying Eye Hospital programme

July 2020

The in-person part of our mission to empower local communities to fight blindness may be temporarily grounded, but our online training has been taking off. Volunteer Faculty member Dr. Lee Alward took to Cybersight to train doctors virtually in our first ever Virtual Flying Eye Hospital program.

Scaling up remote learning

Veteran Volunteer Faculty member Dr. Lee Alward has recently taken on the role of virtual professor, sharing his skills with eye teams in Zambia during our first ever Virtual Flying Eye Hospital program. As Vice-Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Dr. Alward is no stranger to teaching eye care.

He has practiced in Iowa for 33 years and was once the state’s only glaucoma specialist. In addition to his work in Iowa, Dr. Alward has been a volunteer with Orbis for over 20 years, participating in Flying Eye Hospital programs in China, Kenya, Indonesia, the Philippines, and most recently Vietnam in 2019.

Dr. Alward may not have imagined that he would be a virtual professor, teaching students from across the world, but that is exactly what he has been these past few weeks. In lieu of the program postponed due to COVID-19, we have created a virtual curriculum for Zambian eye care professionals to make sure they aren’t missing out on crucial training while in-person programs are shuttered.

His last webinar was a live lecture on glaucoma, delivered to students from various cities across Zambia who were slated to join the Flying Eye Hospitalprogram. Dr. Alward finds virtual training to be a great supplement to hands-on training, allowing students to continue learning from the comfort of their homes. “They don’t need to actually have a plane or a doctor on the ground – they can just go through Cybersight to resume their education.

When asked about why he continues to volunteer, Dr. Alward said, “I like the way that Orbis makes the difference in a sustained way rather than just swooping in and doing a bunch of glaucoma surgeries. Teaching people how to take care of glaucoma patients makes such a big difference. And probably the most important and surprising thing to me were the bioengineers who maintain and fix all the equipment. They teach people how to maintain their Phaco machines and laser equipment. I never even imagined that that was something Orbis did.”

Cybersight: Tools for the future

A born teacher, Dr. Alward feels right at home lecturing in front of a class. On teaching through virtual lectures instead of in-person sessions, he had to say, I sort of feel like Stephen Colbert out there, and those people who are doing late night TV talking to a screen. It’s a little different.” But he and his students have gotten more comfortable, injecting their own commentary and questions into his lectures.

He has even implemented his “flipped classroom” technique that he uses in Iowa with his students in Zambia. He explains, “It entails our residents watching my videos at home and then at the end of every clinic, we just write on the whiteboard what we will do. And I don’t lecture them, I just quiz them and chat with them and talk about interesting cases. There’s a lot of evidence that this conversational approach is better than having me stand at a podium and just talk for an hour.”

I sort of feel like Stephen Colbert out there, and those people who are doing late night TV talking to a screen. It’s a little different.

Dr. Lee Alward

Volunteer Faculty

Dr. Alward believes one of the greatest boons of virtual teaching during the pandemic is that students are learning more about all that’s available through Cybersight and our online tools. He says that even though the students are at home, “they can access educational materials and resume discussions with mentors to help them. I’m hoping that the people that we lectured in Zambia now feel like they can send me a question if they want to ask me something about a patient they’re seeing, or a concept that’s challenging.”

It’s this lasting relationship between mentors and mentees, starting during in-person programs and continuing through Cybersight, that makes our teaching methods so unique and effective. Eye care professionals from around the world can use our online resources even after the Flying Eye Hospital leaves, creating a long-term partnership.

Even though the Flying Eye Hospital couldn't make it to Zambia, our commitment to training the local doctors remains the same. Thanks to our Volunteer Faculty like Dr. Lee Alward, and our amazing supporters, we can make sure that training and education is accessible to those who need it even in the midst of a pandemic.

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