Advanced retinal cameras don't require eye to be dilated and can transmit images over the Internet to University of Maryland specialists
Eye specialists from the University of Maryland School of Medicine are using telemedicine technology to help people who may be at risk of glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, two of the leading causes of blindness in the United States. They will install special retinal imaging cameras in a Baltimore shopping mall, in a Crisfield hospital on the Eastern Shore, and in a Cumberland hospital in Western Maryland to give people throughout the state access to highly trained retinal specialists without having to travel outside their communities.
The first camera to be operational is located at the Penn Optical store in Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore. For this project, doctors from the University of Maryland's Department of Ophthalmology have teamed up with Times Community Services and Penn Optical to develop Focus on Eyes, an innovative telemedicine project aimed at helping people in the African-American community. The National Eye Institute awarded the program a $10,000 grant.
"We're hoping this telemedicine program will reach people who aren't already seeing an ophthalmologist and who may be at risk for developing diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma," says Scott Steidl, M.D., an associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the Retina Service at University of Maryland Medical Center. "By bringing the camera to a local mall, we're making it more convenient for people to get this important screening."
The screening is quick and painless. Participants put their chin against a frame, and the special retinal camera takes a picture of the back of the eye without the need for dilation. Digital images are sent electronically to the University of Maryland's ophthalmologists for evaluation. Participants receive a phone number to call back for results.
Times Community Services oversees the operation of the camera at the mall store. Screening times are Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Fridays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
"Many people do not have their eyes checked because they find it inconvenient to schedule an appointment and then get themselves to that appointment," says Nancy Ellish, Dr. P.H., assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "The Focus on Eyes telemedicine project makes the screening simpler because the camera will be located in a mall where many people are already doing their shopping. And we don't dilate the eyes, so it's even easier for people to be screened."
"If we see a problem on the digital image, we will advise the person to see a local ophthalmologist or optometrist," says Dr. Steidl. "The idea is not to replace the ophthalmologist. We want the cameras to be a tool to catch problems earlier, so people can receive treatment."
Early detection can save a person's sight. With both glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, there are treatments that work well when problems are detected early. While doctors recommend that people with diabetes have an annual eye exam, many patients don't follow that recommendation. Many people are not even aware that they are diabetic.
African-Americans are nearly twice as likely as other groups to have diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, nearly three million African-Americans have diabetes and one-third of them do not know it. Diabetes affects the body's ability to produce and use insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. Diabetic retinopathy is a common complication that affects the small blood vessels in the back of the retina. These vessels can leak, break down or become blocked, impairing vision.
African-Americans are also four to five times more likely than other groups to develop glaucoma, a group of eye problems associated with increased pressure in the eye. The pressure can lead to damage and eventually cause blindness. There is no cure, but early treatment can stop the progression of the disease, and that's why screening is so critical.
"We are excited about the opportunities of the Focus on Eyes project, which will give people in our community access to quality healthcare specialists with the added convenience of having this screening closer to home," explains Dave Johnson, president of Times Community Services, a foundation working to reduce health disparities in minority communities in Maryland. The Baltimore Times Newspaper is the parent organization of Times Community Services.
The Focus on Eyes project is just one part of the School of Medicine's telemedicine plans. Money from the state's Cigarette Restitution Fund helped to pay for the Mondawmin Mall camera as well as the cameras that will be located in Cumberland and Crisfield. The technology gives local residents the opportunity to have retinal specialists evaluate their eyes for early signs of glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, without the inconvenience of traveling, sometimes long distances, to be screened.
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