When Candace Ford went for her exam at the new eye clinic in the Hill Health Center, doctors said they couldn’t test her while she was wearing her contact lenses; they wanted to see her glasses. So Ford ran home to get what she needed and was back in the examining chair within minutes.

This kind of convenience for Hill neighborhood residents, many of whom don’t own cars, is one of the many reasons health center administrators and doctors in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science wanted to open an eye center in the neighborhood.

The health center used to offer ophthalmology services, but about 10 years ago the program died, forcing many Hill residents to travel to the medical school for their eye care. “We had a tremendous number of no-shows from the Hill, so we realized the distance patients had to travel was a barrier to access,” said Susan H. Forster, M.D., HS ’81, an assistant professor in the department. She and others decided the solution was to locate an eye clinic in the same place where patients go for the rest of their medical care.

Organizers applied for and received a $50,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, which enabled them to set up the clinic and outfit it with state-of-the-art equipment. Hill Health Center Chief Operating Officer Gary Spinner says the eye clinic is a much-needed addition to the center. “We serve a large population with diabetes who need ongoing eye care to detect and treat the complications that can affect their eyes,” he said.

Four chief residents take turns staffing the clinic, which is open one day a week. Patients are billed for their treatment, but there is a sliding-fee scale for those who don’t have medical insurance. “We all felt it would benefit a medically underserved population as well as the medical residents who rotate through here,” Spinner said. “They learn a lot about providing health care beyond the technical end of it.”

Although the clinic has been open only since January, Forster said it already served about 20 patients a day and was booked through June. The clinic provides vision tests and screening for such conditions as glaucoma, amblyopia (lazy eye) and retinopathy, which is linked to diabetes. Patients who need surgery or a diagnostic procedure are referred to Yale. Forster said the clinic’s close ties with the ophthalmology department allow patients to benefit from the expertise of Yale specialists, who have ongoing consultations about patient care with the on-site residents.

While convenience was a major selling point for Ford when she decided to go to the eye center, she also appreciated the quiet, relaxed atmosphere. “They had the radio playing R&B, it was clean and there was only one person ahead of me,” she said, “so I was in and out real quick.”

Guy Jirawuthiworavong, M.D., a third-year ophthalmology resident who works in the clinic, also enjoys the intimate atmosphere. “It’s been a really great experience,” he said. “Community clinics by nature are smaller and homier. I like the family setting.”

He said the majority of his patients have a family history of glaucoma and want to get their eyes checked, or they need an annual screening for diabetes. This is just the news Forster wanted to hear. She said many people overlook preventive eye care until it’s too late. “Our goal with this center is to catch things early.”