Eye Care Foundation in Cambodia: An Expansion and Impact Journey

Exploring the transformation of eye care infrastructure in Cambodia and the pioneering efforts of Mekong Eye Doctors (formerly Eye Care Foundation)

Before Mekong Eye Doctors started working in Cambodia, eye care in this country consisted of a single ophthalmologist in Phnom Penh and one eye doctor in Battambang Provincial Hospital. Eye care infrastructure has meanwhile been developed significantly in the shape of eye health facilities, equipment, and commodities, providing specialty and complementary services at national hospitals, provincial hospitals, and health centers as well as promoting community awareness.

In the first few years of its presence in Cambodia, Mekong Eye Doctors worked in cooperation with Doctors Without Borders. Cambodia had just been through a devastating Civil War from 1967 until 1975. A large number of its literate citizens had been murdered by Pol Pot’s regime or had died in the countryside from starvation or exhaustion. The infrastructure, roads, hospitals and schools had been largely destroyed. In 1994 and the following years, the roads were still bad and dangerous in those remote areas where the Red Khmer was still active. Travelling to the provinces of Kratie and Pursat was only possible by boat and under military protection. MED organized a number of eye camps in Kratie and Pursat, both of which attracted hundreds of people. Their goal was to establish an affordable, accessible and sustainable eye care service for marginalized people and it was with this target in mind that MED initiated support to the Referral Hospitals of Kratie, Steung Treng, Svay Rieng, Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri and subsequently expanded to Kampong Cham province from 1999 to 2008.

It was during that period that the National Programme for Eye Health (NPEH) was formed by the government and, together with most of the NGO’s active in the country at the time, programmes were set up to train professionals and build an ophthalmic infrastructure. In 2001 MED built an eye clinic on the grounds of the hospital in Kratie. Dr. Sokhan (who received his training in Vietnam) set to work together with his team and they still form a strong and efficient team today. Stung Treng followed and later, when the roads were increasingly better and safer, MED also started supporting the region of Mondulkiri and subsequently Svay Rieng, Tbung Kmum and Ratanakiri. The latest eye clinic in Ratanakiri was opened in 2017.

The eye clinics supported by ECF organize multiple outreach expeditions to regions situated far away from the clinics. ECF has also given long-time support training of the nurses who work in the numerous health centres; they are capable of treating simple eye disorders and know when to refer patients to an eye clinic. Recently ECF has also started to perform school screenings to identify children with vision problems early on.

Since 2007, together with the Fred Hollows Foundation (FHF), ECF has supported the retraining of doctors to ophthalmologists at the University of Phnom Penh. Every year, two teachers travel from the Netherlands to Phnom Penh for a week to give lectures and hands-on training.

Now that ophthalmic care has been put on the map by the various NGO’s, in collaboration with the NPEH, the next step is to integrate eye care in the national policy with a corresponding budget. The first steps have been taken in creating a health insurance system. Unfortunately, many people still have little or no access to health care, either due to poverty or the location where they live, and help is still needed at the moment.

The office in Phnom Penh opened in November 2007 and started with one Programme Manager: Thong Chun Leng. He was later joined by Pech Chan Muny, Ouk Somuny, Sao Chhorn and Pol Sambath. Somuny and Sambath still work at the office. Marguerite Goulding currently is for some time the Programme Development Advisor from Australian Volunteer International Development Agency.