Q and A with Dr Andrew Bastawrous
Dr Andrew Bastawrous is an eye surgeon, inventor, 2014 TED fellow and CEO of Peek Vision, which is increasing access to eye care worldwide through innovative smartphone-based ophthalmoscope and multiple vision tests apps. He is also the keynote speaker at Optometry Tomorrow 2018, and will be delivering his Charter Lecture: Using public health principles, smartphone technology and innovative financing to radically increase access to eye care. We managed to catch up with Andrew in order to gain an insight into his motivation, busy life and future plans:
Where does your interest in eyes and eye health come from?
I am severely visually impaired, however my poor vision wasn’t picked up until I was 12 years old. My life completely changed as soon as I received glasses. It didn’t just improve my schoolwork, it changed my whole life. I guess that was when the importance of vision for overall wellbeing, health and happiness first became apparent to me, I felt compelled ever since to work in eye health.
What motivates you in your career?
I’m fortunate to have perfect vision when wearing corrective glasses or contact lenses. However, it has always struck me that, had I lived somewhere else, such a simple and life changing intervention might not have been available to me. That struck me as deeply unfair, and motivated me to pursue a career in eye health. I feel lucky to have entered this profession at such an exciting moment, where centuries of research and practice have brought us to a point where most blindness and visual impairment is curable or preventable.
What inspired you to start your company?
Several years ago my wife and I and our young family moved to Kenya. The ambition was to set up 100 temporary eye clinics as part of a large research project to better understand the eye health needs of the population and provide a service at the same time. Bringing expensive, bulky, fragile equipment to improve the quality of diagnosis and treatment was necessary for a research study, but it quickly became clear that we weren’t going to be able to reach the majority of people affected by problems with their vision. For every place we set up a clinic, there were so many more with people losing their sight and with it their livelihoods, dignity, or place in the community. That’s how the idea for Peek was born - by looking around us and trying to figure out how we could work with what was already there to solve this huge, but almost completely avoidable problem.
What would you like to have remembered as your lifetime achievement?
I think we’ve reached a remarkable moment in eye care. Perhaps for the first time in human history, it is possible to eliminate avoidable blindness and vision loss in a generation. But, this isn’t the work of an individual, a single organisation or even a country. It will take a huge, global effort to achieve, and if I can be part of that effort, then I will consider my career has been well spent.
What’s the biggest challenge you have had to overcome?
A major challenge has been positioning ourselves as a mission-driven, social impact organisation. In our early days, the obvious business model was to sell Peek products for profit, and then reinvest a certain proportion of the profit in eye health projects. However, I felt that that there was a strong risk that this type of financing would take us too far from our mission of bringing vision and health to all and, particularly, ensuring that we reached maximum number of people. So, we established Peek Vision as a limited company, entirely owned by the Peek Foundation, a registered charity. This means we are always accountable to our mission and aims, while being able to raise money sustainably through the company and other fundraising activities.
Do you think that it is important for UK optometrists to have an international interest?
The vast majority of people with avoidable blindness and vision loss live in low- and middle-income countries. If you aren’t aware of what’s going on internationally, it gives you a very limited picture of what blindness and vision loss is actually like for the majority of people in the world. While everyone has different motivations and strengths, I would encourage anybody considering working abroad to go for it. My experience has shaped my entire career: I’ve found work that makes me feel incredibly privileged on a daily basis and have made deep and lasting friendships.
Do your programmes and products have relevance to UK optoms?
We certainly think so. Peek Retina, our portable smartphone ophthalmoscope and Peek Acuity, our vision testing app, should be useful to any optometrist looking to provide accurate eye testing and retinal imaging outside the clinic. We’re still a small team, and our products are relatively new - they launched less than a year ago - so we’ve only just scratched the surface in terms of the uses our products can be put to. Although our projects on vision screening utilising Peek Acuity and Peek Retina are currently based in other countries, we’re hoping to be able to apply our findings in numerous settings, including the UK. Our public health principles have relevance in most regions and have enabled us to contribute to policy consultations in this country.
Why did you decide to speak at Optometry Tomorrow?
It’s great to be given the opportunity to speak at the UK’s leading clinical optometry event, with such an important audience for us, and Peek is now at the stage where we’d really like to learn more from the optometry community. As an ophthalmologist, I’ve witnessed unhelpful divides between the ophthalmic and optometric community, in many places these divides lead to people not having access to life changing services. I know how important the role of the optometry sector is and that together we can provide much needed access to millions who don’t have it. That would not be possible in isolation.
What are your main messages for the delegates?
I’d like them to gain an understanding of global eye health issues, the major barriers to access, what we are doing to reduce those barriers and why this is such a huge, yet resolvable, issue.
If delegates are inspired to become more involved, what would you like them to do?
As a community of experts, optometrists can play a huge part in raising awareness of the scale of avoidable blindness and vision loss worldwide - with their patients, in the media, and directly to health agencies and governments. By joining our mailing list, they can receive updates and find out about opportunities to get involved in the Peek Vision mission.
And, if they walk away with one intention– what would you like that to be?
To be part of the solution.