MISSISSIPPI COUNTY, Ark. (KAIT) - Governor Asa Hutchinson signed Act 579 of 2019 into law over two years ago, allowing optometrists to perform five minor surgeries once only allowed by ophthalmologists.
After some opposition, and an attempt to have the law put on the ballot for possible repeal, optometrists are now able to perform the procedures.
“It’s certainly an option for people,” Dr. Matthew Jones said.
Jones practices optometry in Blytheville and Osceola and believes these procedures will help people in rural areas like Mississippi County.
It gives people the option to have their local optometrist perform the minor procedures without having to travel to Jonesboro, Little Rock, or Memphis.
The surgeries allowed under Act 579 of 2019 are things like removing small bumps around the eyes and some laser procedures.
“Optometrists were able to finally get credentialed and certified to perform these procedures in February,” Jones said. “We began, I began practicing those procedures, rather quickly.”
The first patient he was able to perform a procedure allowed Act 579 was someone he has seen for 12 years in Osceola.
The patient has glaucoma and missed some of his appointments.
Jones became concerned, and reached out to the patient and learned he had suffered a stroke.
“So, that individual, you know, wasn’t on his medicine like he should have been and hadn’t been able to come to his follow-ups,” Jones said.
The man would walk to the office in Osceola, and after the stroke did not have transportation to that office, let alone a doctor’s office out of town.
“Whenever we were finally credentialed to do this after years and years, he was the first person I thought of,” Jones said.
So they arranged transportation to pick the patient up and perform the procedure to help with his glaucoma, something Jones said is common among patients he sees in Mississippi County.
“It’ll be something that will help him when he isn’t able to access his eye drops,” Jones said.
While there is a convenience factor for patients to see their local optometrist for these procedures, it could also help rural Arkansas that are more impoverished like Mississippi County.
“Poverty is predominant here and having more access to every kind of health care is so essential for us because we have so many people who can’t travel,” Liz Smith said.
Smith is the executive director of the Greater Blytheville Chamber of Commerce, but she is also a patient of Jones’ who had one of the procedures allowed under Act 579.
“I was really pleased to be able to come to my normal optometrist to get this done,” Smith said.
Smith said one good thing about small towns is familiarity with each other and with their doctors, and that can also bring a bit of comfort to people.
“Lots of people are, of course, very uncomfortable going to any kind of healthcare professional, but I think when that eye doctor or that dentist, or the physician is somebody you know, or that you sit by in church, it’s a lot easier to go to them,” Smith said. “It’s a lot easier to be candid with them about what bothers you and to feel trusting of them.”
It is something echoed by Dr. Jones.
“It makes a difference in their case and in their compliance to their care, hearing from someone that they do trust,” Jones said.