UW Provides Free Eye Care to Wisconsin’s Plain Communities


As a pediatric ophthalmologist and inherited retinal disease specialist, Melanie Schmitt, MD, an assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, identified a need for comprehensive eye care among Wisconsin’s Amish and Old Order Mennonite people, collectively called the Plain communities, a population that typically lacks health insurance, pays out of pocket for health care services, and has limited resources to cover such costs. This realization inspired Schmitt to work toward improving health care for Wisconsin’s Plain families.

In 2016, Schmitt partnered with the Center for Special Children in La Farge, Wisconsin to offer an eye clinic to the Plain community. The Center, located in Vernon Memorial Healthcare’s rural La Farge Medical Clinic, is focused on diagnosing and managing inherited disorders in the Plain community, where western medicine is often not the first choice for health care.

Melanie Schmitt, MD
Melanie Schmitt, MD


“The Center for Special Children was a perfect partner for this effort,” Schmitt said. “They had an established relationship with the Plain communities and were already receiving guidance from them on how to best meet their needs while being respectful of cultural beliefs and values. Through this partnership, we have been able to build trust and positive relationships with the members of the community.”

Schmitt travels to the clinic with a team of orthoptists, ophthalmic technicians, electrophysiologists, and residents. They offer patients a full eye exam – complete with refraction and dilation – as well as screening for common eye diseases. These services are crucial in detecting and treating vision problems early on – and thus helping to prevent more serious conditions from developing in the future.

“This is about improving the quality of life for this community,” Schmitt said. “They often rely on their vision for their livelihood, such as farming, carpentry, and other skilled trades. If left untreated, vision problems can significantly impact their ability to perform their work and carry out their daily activities.”

Wisconsin has the fourth largest population of Amish and Mennonite families in the country. In Wisconsin, Vernon County has historically had the highest concentration.

The clinic occurs three times per year, with the most recent one on May 12, 2023. Since its inception, the eye clinic has served 146 patients.