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Healthy Vision Month: IHS is a Leader in Using Technology to Prevent Vision Loss

by Mark Horton, OD, MD, Director IHS Teleophthalmology Program

During Healthy Vision Month Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov, I want to remind patients that annual eye exams are important to maintaining healthy vision. Many eye diseases, including diabetic retinopathy Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov, don’t show symptoms in their early stages.

Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of new blindness among working age adults, even though it can be easily treated with timely diagnosis. Unfortunately, about half of all patients with diabetes don’t get an annual retinal examination that could prevent needless vision loss.

IHS uses an innovative telemedicine program that provides high-quality retinal exams in primary care clinics, without requiring a trip to see a specialist. The IHS teleophthalmology program uses special equipment to quickly obtain retinal photographs, which are electronically sent to a central reading center where they are interpreted by specially trained and certified IHS eye doctors. Since dilation drops are not needed, this can be done during a regular office visit without disrupting the rest of the patient’s day.

Through the use of this technology, IHS has increased the number of American Indians and Alaska Natives receiving an annual retina exam by 20% from 2007 to 2015, substantially reducing the number of patients subject to vision loss. This innovative and effective program increases quality and access of care, while also reduced the overall cost of care by avoiding complications resulting from delayed or missed care.

These telemedicine examinations have been carefully tested for quality, and the IHS teleophthalmology program has been validated to American Telemedicine Association (ATA) Category 3, which means that its clinical outcome is equal or better than a conventional eye examination for diabetic retinopathy. As one of the few, and largest, programs validated and operating at this level, the IHS teleophthalmology program has brought high quality point of care specialty service to over 150,000 American Indian and Alaska Native patients.

As a leader in this telemedicine domain, the IHS teleophthalmology program is active in the development of the standards for diabetic telemedicine care, and the advancement of the technology used to provide this care. The program is deployed at approximately 100 sites in 25 states and continues to expand and update the program to improve compliance with standards of care and reduce avoidable vision loss due to DR among AI/AN.

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Mark Horton, OD, MD, Director IHS Teleophthalmology Program

Dr. Mark Horton directs the national teleophthalmology program for the Indian Health Service. He is the author of multiple journal articles and book chapters on ophthalmology and telemedicine.