Optometry intelligent when it comes to diabetic screening

Optometry Australia is supportive of any screening for diabetic retinopathy in patients. And, while it welcomes the artificial intelligence screenings soon to be available at GP clinics as a method to detect the disease, it doesn’t want Australians to forgo comprehensive eye examinations.

A comprehensive eye examination performed by a qualified optometrist is the best way to detect the disease which affects one-third of the 1.7 million diabetics in Australia.

Diabetic retinopathy is caused by damage to the blood vessels of the light-sensitive retina at the back of the eye. If left untreated, it can cause blindness.

We are concerned that at-risk patients will forgo regular comprehensive eye exams in favour of a single, limited screening test at a GP clinic, which doesn’t check for other common eye diseases like cataract, macular degeneration and glaucoma. We don’t want patients receiving these screenings to get a false sense of security about their eye health as only one of the many eye conditions affecting Australians is being assessed.

Optometrists have the appropriate equipment and qualifications to thoroughly examine their patients’ eyes and visual needs, and are able to refer patients to an ophthalmologist for further treatment if required. The GP screening, in contrast, uses artificial intelligence to scan a photograph of only a narrow area at the back of the eye and provide a grading of the disease – which is then referred to an ophthalmologist.

With 75% of blindness treatable or preventable with early detection, it’s important that all Australians have a full, comprehensive eye examination with their local optometrist. Many conditions like glaucoma (which will not be picked up in this AI screening) are symptomless in the early stages but with early detection and management vision loss can be slowed or halted.

The new screening technology, which will be rolled out to 20 clinics in Western Australia in the next few months before expanding across the country, has been touted with the benefit of reducing waiting times for eye care. However, I don’t think there is much strength to this claim for most parts of Australia.

We applaud this world-first CSIRO technology and note that it has benefits in developing countries where eye care practitioners cannot service the growing number of diabetics. Here in Australia, however, we are lucky to have a highly skilled and easily accessible network of optometrists with the ability to provide timely eye health care with no or very limited waiting periods. The bigger problem in Australia is getting the message we need to take preventative eye health seriously out to the general public. People consistently rate vision as their most precious sense but often wait until they notice a problem with their vision before seeking help, which in some cases can be like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.

The role of the optometrist

In Australia, there are an estimated 1.7 million people living with diabetes, and about half a million don't know they are diabetic, which is why regular eye examinations are so important.

The impact of diabetes on eyes should not be taken lightly as diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of vision loss and blindness.  If you are diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, the sooner the appropriate treatment and management plan can be implemented, the better.  Our goal is to prevent further damage to the eye so that you are able to maintain your best vision for as long as possible.

In the early stages of diabetic retinopathy there may be no signs or symptoms but the risk of vision loss increases with the onset and duration of the disease.  The symptoms that people should be mindful of include blurred or fluctuating vision, double vision, flashes and/or floaters.

Optometry Australia has around 4,500 members, representing eight out of every ten Australian-based optometrists.

We support good vision for life and recommend people consult an optometrist regularly with intervals determined by age, need and presence of ocular or systemic disease.  Eye examinations are painless and will include screening for common eye diseases such as glaucoma, macular degeneration cataracts and diabetic retinopathy.

Eye examinations provided by optometrists are subsidised under Medicare for all permanent residents of Australia.

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