The future of vision in our hands

How the role of apps and smartphone tech in eye care is evolving

phone and medicine

We are all now familiar with the saying ‘there’s an app for that’. Phrases like this are now commonplace, as apps and smartphones are intrinsic parts of our everyday lives.

Smartphone technology and how we consume information has changed dramatically over the past decade and even more over the past year since the pandemic started.

I find it hard to imagine how I would have coped during the pandemic without easy access to communication, made possible through our smartphones, especially with friends or family members in self-isolation.

Smartphones played a central role in the response to the outbreak of COVID-19, as we witnessed the use of the test and trace app. For eye care practitioners, reduced contact time with patients due to the lockdowns meant many moved towards remote consultations, of which some were likely conducted using smartphones.

A recent Ofcom study, Online Nation 2020, looked into what people in the UK were doing online, how they used the internet and on what type of devices. According to the report, “eight in 10 adults aged 16+ used smartphones in 2020. In comparison, almost six in 10 (57%) adults have a laptop, half (52%) have a tablet and only a quarter (24%) have a desktop PC in their households. Smartphones are cited as the most important device for accessing the internet at home or elsewhere among all adults 16+ (60%).” 

More specifically, when looking at apps the report revealed that: “In March 2020 there were over five million apps available for downloading across the Google Play and iOS app stores, up from 4.8 million the year before.”

This study shows that smartphone use continues to increase, but what does this mean for optics?

The role of apps and smartphones within optics is changing and developing rapidly, and creates opportunities for eye care professionals and patients, alike whether this is focusing on support for patients or research into different methods of disease detection.

This week OT reported the launch of a free app, Glaucoma in Perspective, aimed to help assist patients and their families living with glaucoma.

The launch of the app coincides with World Glaucoma Week (7–13 March), a global initiative to raise awareness of glaucoma and encourage regular sight tests.

The app is a product of a collaboration between Allergan, City, University of London and Glaucoma UK.

Development lead, Professor David Crabb, professor of statistics and vision research, at City, University of London commented: “Patient information for glaucoma suffers from being complicated and poorly presented. We think Glaucoma in Perspective offers a fresh look. We hope it will help people understand how and why their vision could worsen if they don’t adhere to treatment.”

The app contains a plethora of tools such as step-by step guides, demonstrations and informative animations. Development of the app was based on findings from the research team at City, University of London, into patients’ perspectives of sight loss with glaucoma. One patient described how the app helped them communicate with family and friends what it’s like to live with glaucoma, emphasising that: “it can be a lonely place without that support.”

The same patient added that “for long sufferers, as well as people suddenly discovering they have this disease, it can be a real blow. Having an app like this helps you work through the ramifications slowly, and in your own time, to fully digest what’s involved and how you can work with your doctor to make the best of it.” 

OT recently reported on the results from Moorfields Eye Hospital’s pilot of home vision monitoring technology that enables patients to monitor their vision at home using an app. The technology is designed specifically for patients with disease that affects the macula, including neovascular age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and diabetes. From a survey of 350 patients using the Home Vision Monitor app 70% of the pilot group felt reassured knowing their vision was being monitored during a pandemic.

Consultant ophthalmic surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital, Konstantinos Balaskas, commented: “Placing such tools in the hands of patients will both improve health outcomes for patients and reduce the capacity pressures of hospital-based eye departments.”

Also reported in OT this month, University of Birmingham scientists conducted research into how smartphone soundwaves could be used to measure intraocular pressure (IOP), as a way of detecting early warning signs that a patient may be at risk of glaucoma.

Co-author Dr Khamis Essa, who is the director of the advanced manufacturing group at the University of Birmingham, noted: “With further investigation into eye geometry and how this affects the interaction with soundwaves, it may be possible to use a smartphone to accurately measure IOP from the comfort of the user’s home.”

OT  asks...

What level of importance would you place on the role of apps and smartphone technology in the future of eye care?

  • Highly important

    8 22%
  • Important

    23 63%
  • Not important

    3 8%
  • Don't know

    2 5%