Kevin Riordan: His mission: Better eye care worldwide

Abraham Gonen is associate dean for global development at Salus University, formerly Pa. College of Optometry. It has students far and wide.
Abraham Gonen is associate dean for global development at Salus University, formerly Pa. College of Optometry. It has students far and wide. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 07, 2013

Abraham Gonen has an ambitious mission: improving eye care around the world.

"You could say this is a 24-hour job," says the Cherry Hill resident, 66, associate dean for global development at Salus University in Elkins Park.

The university was called Pennsylvania College of Optometry and was in Philadelphia when Gonen earned his doctorate there in the late 1960s.

Renamed in 2008, Salus (a Latin word for health and well-being) now offers advanced degree, degree completion, continuing education, and certification programs to optometry students and professionals already working in the field in the Far East, Scandinavia, and other parts of Europe.

The university has conferred about 1,300 graduate degrees to candidates from Germany, Norway, Israel, and others among the 24 countries where the international program operates.

And at the start of the current semester, three of what is expected to be a dozen Saudi Ph.D. candidates - all women - were enrolled as well. One has arrived at the Elkins Park campus, and two are studying in Saudi Arabia.

"Eight men who are part of the doctor of optometry program at Qassim University in the north of Saudi Arabia also are coming to campus for a clinical rotation," Gonen says. "They will be staying with us a total of four months, starting in January."

The international program "has just snowballed," adds Gonen, a lifelong student of international relations who speaks nine languages. He's also a sports fan.

"He loves his work," says Raya Gonen, sitting next to her husband at the kitchen table in their stylish home. A retired opera singer, she teaches voice at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. They have four children and three grandchildren.

"His work fulfills him," she adds. "I'm very proud of his accomplishments."

After 20 years in the private sector (he designed special-effects contact lenses for the 1985 sci-fi film Enemy Mine), Gonen joined the faculty of his alma mater shortly after the international program was established.

About 100 students are enrolled, and efforts are underway to expand to Japan, China, India, and South Korea.

"Dr. Gonen has always been driven by a desire to bring optometry to the next level," says Anthony F. Di Stefano, vice president of academic affairs at Salus.

I'm not surprised when he tells me that the quality of optometric care differs among nations - or that optometrists have been essential to setting the enviable standard for the accessible, relatively affordable, primary eye care the United States and Canada enjoy.

But optometrists, who, unlike ophthalmologists, are not medical doctors, have not achieved the same stature in Europe and elsewhere, Di Stefano says, adding that their status "is quite variable around the world."

Clinically trained optometrists may detect potentially sight-destroying progressive diseases, such as glaucoma, early on. They are, in effect, on the front lines, but have not, historically, been prepared or empowered for that level of responsibility.

Di Stefano and Gonen emphasize that the Salus program is not an attempt to impose an American model on countries with different academic and professional cultures. The university partners with institutions and professional associations in the host countries.

"They truly have changed the quality and status of optometry," says Finnish optometrist Robert Andersson, who earned a master of science degree from Salus in 2010.

"I was actually able to earn my license [in Finland] to use diagnostic drops, and now I am able to take better care of my patients," Andersson says by phone from Helsinki.

Advances of this sort are helping the image and the reality of the optometrist evolve toward "health-care professional" and away from "salesman" of eyewear, Gonen says.

And better-educated professionals "will better serve the public," he adds.

"The American Optometric Association applauds the efforts of Dr. Abraham Gonen and Salus University to develop the science and practice of optometry around the world," spokeswoman Susan Thomas says in an e-mail. The university "promotes access to eye health and vision care for all people," she adds, calling the program "a very notable endeavor."

American optometry "made great strides in the 1970s" to improve primary eye care, says Gonen, adding, "The rest of the world wanted to follow but did not have the resources, teaching force, [or] appropriate degrees."

Thanks to Gonen and others on the Salus team, this may be changing in 24 countries. Sounds like a good start.

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

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