IU in Thailand

Seven decades of relationship-building resulting in IU’s longest-standing partnership

For almost 20 years, the IU School of Optometry has partnered with Rhamkamhaeng University in Bangkok to establish an optometry program.

When Dr. Nutchaarpa Puangmalai, or Dr. Saai as she is known, graduated from Ramkhamhaeng University with a degree in optometry, she set out to practice what she had been taught.

But she soon realized that in order to make a greater contribution to her field, she needed to return to her alma mater -- the first university in Thailand to have an optometry programthanks to the support of Indiana University -- to help bring the next generation of optometrists to Thailand.

"After I graduated, I worked in some optical storesandas a practitioner in a local hospital so I tried different things," she said. "But I realized to improve the profession is to have potential faculty to produce more students and to produce more graduates to serve our country."

Serving as a lecturer, researcher and clinic consultant for the school, Puangmalai is a shining example of a collaboration between two universities that set out 20 years ago to help bring optometry to Thailand.

Description of the following video:

[Words appear in lower-left corner: Indiana University presents]

[Video: A photograph of Richard E. Meetz, an optometry professor at Indiana University, examining a patient, appears. He and his patient are in an exam room. Meetz is wearing an optical device on his head while using a device to look into his patient's eyes.
Meetz speaks in voiceover: How it started … We were contacted by basically an optical group …
[Video: A photograph of Meetz with a Thai optometrist. They are both smiling and posing for the camera. A wall with lettering that reads "Institute of Health Science" is behind them. The equivalent of this phrase, in Thai letters, is above the English letters.]
Meetz speaks in voiceover: … from Bangkok, Thailand, and they had been interested in …
[Video: A photograph of Meetz lecturing in a classroom. He is standing in front of his class, pointing at a screen that displays a PowerPoint presentation.
Meetz speaks in voiceover: … developing the profession of optometry, that didn't exist in Thailand. And …
[Video: Meetz appears on camera.]
[Words appear: Richard E. Meetz, Clinical Professor Emeritus, School of Optometry
Meetz speaks: … there was a letter of agreement between Indiana University and Ramkhamhaeng University in Bangkok, and that became the connect to come to us. And they asked us to help them …
[Video: A photograph of Meetz and a technician examining a patient. They are in an exam room. Meetz is observing the technician use an optical device to look into the patient's eyes.
Meetz speaks in voiceover: … design a curriculum and start a school. Well, the initial class were all …
[Video: A photograph of Meetz lecturing in classroom. He is standing in front of his class, pointing at a screen that displays a PowerPoint presentation.
Meetz speaks in voiceover: … experienced opticians. These were not young, you know, students.
[Video: A photograph of Meetz examining a patient. They are in an exam room. Meetz is using an optical device to look into his patient's eyes.]
Meetz speaks in voiceover: So they were already in midcareer, and they were the ones who wanted to take the profession further.
[Video: A photograph of Meetz with some of his Thai students. They are standing together as a group. All are smiling and posing for the camera.]
Meetz speaks in voiceover: So, they were very motivated, and were a …
[Video: Meetz appears on camera.]
Meetz speaks: … delight to work with, and very welcoming to us.
[Video: Two Thai opticians walk together, outside, on the Ramkhamhaeng University campus.]
Meetz speaks in voiceover: I was very interested in seeing what international health care was like.
[Video: A Thai optical technician, uses a device to examine a patient's eyes. Three Thai women work at the front desk of an optical office in Thailand. A Thai optical technician sits with a patient, testing eyeglasses]
Meetz speaks in voiceover: Being involved in these other countries just brings IU to the forefront ofthese involvements.
[Screen goes to black]
[IU trident appears]
[Words appear: Indiana University]
[Words appear: Fulfilling the promise]
[Words appear: iu.edu]

Dr. Richard Meetz discusses the IU School of Optometry's role in helping optometry become a recognized profession in Thailand.  

Starting from scratch

In 1999, administrators at Ramkhamhaeng University, who already had a partnership with IU, and members of the Thai Optical Society reached out to the IU School of Optometry to inquire about establishing an optometry program in Thailand. Originally following the British model -- in which opticians fit glasses and only ophthalmologists diagnose disease and perform surgery -- optometry wasn't recognized as a profession in Thailand.

"At that time, Thailand had qualified opticians, but they were missing the people in the middle, optometrists, who could connect the basic eye exam with not only the vision and refraction, but also binocular vision and detection of early eye disease," said Dr. Douglas Horner, associate professor emeritus at the IU School of Optometry, who was part of the initial program at Ramkhamhaeng, Thailand's largest university.

Dr. Meetz looking over a student's shoulder as he is examining a patientView print quality image
Dr. Richard Meetz is a clinical professor emeritus at the IU School of Optometry. Photo by Cadence Baugh Chang, Indiana University

With former Dean Gerald Lowther's support, faculty at IU created a curriculum similar to IU's and sent faculty to Thailand to teach the courses. They also began, and have continued, to train the faculty to teach their own courses. Classes began in 2002 with six students, all of whom were experienced opticians who saw the need for optometry in their country.

Dr. Richard Meetz, clinical professor emeritus at the IU School of Optometry, is one of the IU faculty members who took part in the program. He said the initial classes were eager to learn.

"These were experienced opticians, not young students," Meetz said. "They were already mid-career, and they were the ones who wanted to take the profession further. They were very motivated and very welcoming to us."

Why go through 30 hours of travel, language barriers and foreign politics to help a country thousands of miles away?

"You are either in health care trying to help people, or you aren't," Horner said. "It is really pretty simple. People need to be able to see to do their jobs, to live their lives. They deserve to be helped. That is why we do what we do: to help people."

"Starting a program from scratch gave us a different perspective on our own teaching," Meetz said. Teaching in a different country, where people speak a different language, helped us simplify our own teaching style and helped us developa more direct approach to teaching."

From the top Dr. Richard Meetz, clinical professor emeritus at the IU School of Optometry, works with students at Ramkhamhaeng University; Meetz teaching class; a sign advertising the relationship between IU and Ramkhamhaeng University.

Fruits of their labor

Some IU faculty, like Meetz, have continued to travel to the area over the past 20 years, teaching courses and training faculty like Puangmalai to take over the teaching responsibilities of the program.

The work is paying off. In 2010, optometry was recognized as a legalprofession in Thailand, and a standard curriculum was set, based on the Ramkhamhaeng/IU model. Ramkhamhaeng's optometry program attained official status as a school in 2012.

The school currently has 13 full-time faculty members from Ramkhamhaeng and four international adjunct faculty. This year's academic class includes 64 students, and the program now boasts about 300 graduates. It also inspired two additional optometry programs in the country.

Ramkhamhaeng UniversityView print quality image
Nutchakan Srisorn, a student at the Faculty of Optometry at Ramkhamhaeng University, performs an eye exam.

The desire for optometrists continues to grow, and a licensing exam has been established.

"It is definitely still in its infancy, and as in the U.S., it will take time for the profession to grow," Meetz said. "But IU's support and reputation as a leader in the field, along with our qualified faculty who were willing to come in and show the way, have helped things move more quickly than it would have moved otherwise."

Although the profession is now established, Dr. Danai Tonkerdmonkon is hopeful it will continue to grow and is thankful for the support of IU.

Tonkerdmonkon has roots at both Ramkhamhaeng and IU. Before becoming dean of the Faculty of Optometry at Ramkhamhaeng, he received his Doctor of Optometry from IU in 2002. He said his experience in Bloomington, Indiana, has helped him become a leader at Ramkhamhaeng.

"I have been to many places in the world, and I feel the training and academic experience I got from IU have served me well in preparing myself to enter the field of optometry and to continue to push for the field here in Thailand," he said. "One of the things I swore to do in the profession is to serve the people with the knowledge I gained from my studies and to pass on this knowledge to different generations of optometrists who are going to be a benefit to Thailand in terms of eye care professionals, so we will be able to give high-quality eye care to the people."

From top: The eye clinic sign at Ramkhamhaeng University; Student Nutchakan Srisorn performs an eye exam at the school's clinic; Ramkhamhaeng professor Nutchaarpa Puangmalai, Dean Danai Tonkerdmonkol and former student Ploychompoo "May" Parsuraphun.