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Virtual Eye Screenings Detect Potential Blindness

Dr. Blice examining an image of the eye.
John Lewis and Julia Shillinglaw
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Dr. Blice examining an image of the eye.

There are an estimated 34 million people living with diabetes in the United States. Long-term complications of diabetes include cardiovascular disease, nerve damage and eye damage. People who experience diabetic retinopathy may eventually go blind. For many patients in the early stages of diabetic retinopathy, there may not be any symptoms at all and that is why screening is important.

“If we can find it before symptoms start, then hopefully we can actually do something about it,” says Dr. Martin Smith, medical director for Harvest Free Medical Clinic located in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Harvest Free Medical Clinic serves as a safety net clinic for people who lack insurance or the financial resources to pay for medical care. Dr. Smith says the clinic strives to build a relationship with patients while providing care.

Dr. Jeffrey Blice, M.D., and Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at the Medical University of South Carolina, said a Duke Endowment Grant made it possible to start a telehealth imaging system at the free clinic. Using a retinal imaging camera, pictures are taken of patients eyes and then those images are sent to doctors at MUSC.

“We have actually detected pretty severe disease in people that otherwise would have caused them to go blind,” Dr. Blice said.

He said saving even three or four people in a year from going blind is a huge benefit both to patients and to the healthcare system because of the costs associated with caring for blind patients throughout their lifetime.

“The benefit of telehealth is capturing those people who may have disease so that we can try and treat them,” Dr. Blice said.