COVID-19 is Exposing Critical Vision Care Weaknesses but Solutions are at Hand

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Right now, it’s hard to think of a single aspect of daily life that isn’t being impacted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It has disrupted the global economy, forced schools to close, and stretched healthcare systems to their breaking point. In the process, people from all walks of life have had to explore new ways to accomplish what used to be routine tasks before the pandemic changed everything.

To facilitate that, there’s been a big push to expand videoconferencing and telepresence options for any and all in-person services that have been impacted by the crisis. Even synagogues have gone digital, after the recent approval of virtual minyans by the CJLS. It’s a situation that many people wouldn’t have imagined just a few short months ago.

Despite the efforts to adjust, however, there are some areas of need that haven’t kept pace. One of those things is the ability of people to access critical eye care services amidst the pandemic. As medical procedures go, eye care is particularly problematic when it comes to remote options because many of the needed procedures involve precision optical instruments that must be used in an in-person setting.

As a result, the eye care industry writ large hadn’t developed much in the way of telemedicine options in the runup to the pandemic. And the providers that did made few efforts to promote them as anything other than an option of convenience for patients who were either short on time or unwilling to schedule an in-person visit.

On top of all of that, vision care, particularly in the US, has never been much of a priority. At last count, around half of Americans lacked comprehensive vision coverage as a part of their healthcare insurance package. And it has led to a chronic underdiagnosis of vision problems across the country as people opt to save on out-of-pocket vision expenses, sometimes out of sheer necessity.

The problem has become especially acute among children, with some estimates predicting that cases of poor vision among preschoolers will increase by 26% between now and 2060. That’s a shocking figure that could have a big impact on those students’ educational attainment prospects, as poor vision has been shown to affect early literacy development and can hinder a whole host of other early-childhood skill development.

But the situation regarding vision care in the US needn’t continue to deteriorate. At least, not if ophthalmologist Jesse Richman has any say in the matter. In response to the pandemic, which is expected to exacerbate an already difficult situation concerning vision care, he’s spearheading an effort to provide at-home access to a vision test he co-developed known as the Spaeth/Richman Contrast Sensitivity (SPARCS) test.

It’s a vision screening tool that anyone can use right in the comfort of their own home to determine if they may have an undiagnosed vision condition that requires additional care. The process takes about five minutes, and while it can’t diagnose specific vision problems, it can serve as a useful vision benchmark that can reveal weaknesses indicative of a vision deficiency.

If the test becomes more broadly used, it could serve as a valuable pre-screening option that people – and their children – could use to determine if seeking additional care is worth the price of a visit. Between that, and the increasing availability of inexpensive prescription glasses online, it may yet be possible to cobble together a cost-effective telehealth solution to the brewing vision crisis in the US.

At the very least, it could be an indication that the coronavirus pandemic is serving as a useful catalyst to spur some development in a healthcare specialty that needed it. In the end, if this unfortunate global situation yields some tangible benefits to the vision of a large number of Americans and their children, it would serve as a reminder that forward progress is sometimes borne of necessity. And that would be welcome good news at a time when people sure could use it.


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