VA Study: Telehealth Can Help Identify Eye Issues in Diabetic Patients

June 5, 2014 in News

Primary care clinics that used telemedicine to screen diabetic patients for eye conditions were effective in identifying several eye issues early, but the process resulted in an influx of patients seeking specialized eye care, according to a Veterans Health Administration study by the published in in JAMA Ophthalmology, Reuters reports.

Study Details

For the study, researchers at a Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Atlanta analyzed nearly two years’ worth of medical records to examine the effect of placing retinal cameras in primary care clinics to monitor eye conditions among patients with diabetes.

The cameras were operated by trained nurses, who would take pictures of the patients’ retinas and submit them to eye specialists or medical image readers for analysis. If the reviewer spotted an issue, the patient was referred to an ophthalmologist at an affiliated clinic.

In total, the researchers examined the medical records of nearly 2,000 patients at local VA clinics between fall 2008 and spring 2009. Of those patients, 465 were referred for specialized eye care. 

Study Findings

The study found that of the referred patients:

  • Most were suspected of having nonmacular diabetic retinopathy or nerve-related problems;
  • Slightly more than 50% were treated at an eye clinic within two years; and
  • 36% required at least three visits, indicating a serious eye condition.

Implications

Beau Bruce, who worked with the researchers but did not contribute to the study, said the telehealth screenings were cost-effective, adding, “Likely this screening brought sight-threatening disease to earlier attention and therefore treatment.”

Mary Lynch, lead author of the study, said that the results could be used by other health systems that are deciding how to allocate resources when implementing the cameras. She said efficiently divvying up resources is important to helping clinics handle an influx of eye patients that likely would be generated by implementing the teleretinal program (Doyle, Reuters, 6/4).

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