Optical shops roped in for eye-screening

Family doctors and optical shops are being asked to take part in a new eye-screening initiative as the country gears up for an expected surge in diabetes-related vision problems.

Patients will have their eyes photographed by their nearest participating optometrist after being referred by a general practitioner.

The move is unusual because these images are normally taken by an eye doctor, rather than staff at an optical shop.

A camera that captures the inside of the eyeball will be used to take the photographs. They will then be processed at a newly set up centralised laboratory, where a team of technicians will analyse them and generate a report in as little as an hour.

Armed with the results, patients can then receive further advice from their GP. For example, some may have to be referred to an eye specialist.

About 30 GPs and 20 optometrists are taking part in the initiative, which is being helmed by the Singapore Eye Research Institute (Seri). Said its executive director Wong Tien Yin: "This is a system we are introducing to add value to GPs and optical shops. Shops can play a part, not just in giving out glasses, but in helping to manage a big problem in Singapore."

More adults here are suffering from diabetes, said Dr Kevin Tan of the Diabetic Society of Singapore.

About 11 per cent of the population have the condition, up from 8.2 per cent in 2004. And one in three of these sufferers has diabetic retinopathy, where fluid leaks into the centre of the retina, leading to blurry vision.

Usually, patients have to go to polyclinics or hospitals for screening to detect the condition, which can be time consuming and expensive.

Queues can be long and consultations with an eye specialist cost at least $70 a time.

Under the initiative, patients can receive vouchers from their GPs and pay just $10 for the $30 screening. The remainder will be covered by drug giant Novartis.

This arrangement comes after a study by Seri found technicians can analyse eye images as well as polyclinic doctors. In some cases, they were even better at spotting diseased eyes.

The research will be published in the next issue of the Singapore Medical Journal.

Called the Singapore Advanced Imaging Laboratory for Ocular Research, the new lab was set up in September, and is expected to partner another 90 optometrists and GPs by 2015, as well as all polyclinics and hospitals.

Its programme manger Haslina Hamzah said the team of 13 technicians also spot other eye diseases such as glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration.

"Each image is being read at least twice. Junior technicians also get supervised for at least six months."

Prof Wong hopes that making eye-screening more accessible will spur more diabetics to undergo the tests regularly. "We cannot expect everyone to see an eye doctor," he said. "There aren't enough specialists in Singapore.

"It is also not that cost-effective for them to line up at the hospitals for a quick check."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.