Preparing for the low vision patients of the future
Low vision aid suppliers, Eschenbach Optik and Sight and Sound Technology, tell OT about developments in the technology and what patients are looking for
06 June 2022
“Dispensing low vision aids needs education and passion,” Matthias Anke, managing director at Eschenbach Optik, told OT. This might not be the most glamorous side to the optical industry, he argues, “but you always meet somebody who is desperate for them, and this is very rewarding, because we help people to see again.”
The numbers of people requiring low vision aids are only going to grow in the west, Anke suggested, as society lives longer with the same diseases. “For example, diabetic retinopathy is something we see growing dramatically in most Western countries.”
With this in mind, supporting patients who might benefit from low vision aids could become increasingly important, but entering the low vision field need not be overwhelming. Anke emphasised: “You don’t need to have 200 different products on the shelf to be successful with your customers.”
The company provides a package comprising six products that offer practices and their patients an entry point into low vision aids.
Technology in this field is accelerating rapidly, suggested Glenn Tookey, CEO of Sight and Sound. With the market moving quickly, if practitioners last learnt about low vision aids in their training, “they may be 10 to 15 years out of date, so it’s well worth an update.”
The distributor of aids for blind and visually impaired people runs CPD sessions to support practitioners to expand their knowledge of low vision aids, and also operates a referral portal through its website. This enables individuals to self-refer, or eye care professionals to refer patients, and track the progress of the inquiry.
It’s all about independenceDiscussing the value that low vision aids hold for patients, Anke said: “I used to think of single person households as young people living in flats, but 75% of single households are made up of individuals older than 60.”
“If they lose their independence, they don’t see the dirt anymore. Or they cannot differentiate a tin of beans from a tin of peas. They cannot read the newspaper. To offer them tools so that they can keep their independence in life is a big deal,” he added.
With an ageing population, this is particularly important for community optometry.
“For a holistic approach within an optometry practice, this shouldn’t be ignored,” Anke said. “And, I think it also makes economic sense for the practice.”
What patients wantValue for money is a core factor in a patient’s decision making when purchasing low vision aids, with some technologies representing a significant investment.
The costs of some technologies are coming down, Tookey noted, but explained: “I think people are looking for the ‘wow factor’ when they pick up a piece of technology. That gives them the reason to make such an investment.”
There are two ‘Holy Grails’ in what patients are seeking in low vision aids of the future, Tookey told OT: portability and navigation.
While devices are becoming more portable, the full scope of external and internal navigation “has not yet been achieved,” Tookey feels, “but in the next five years I expect to see products that meet those requirements.”
What has been driving development in low vision aids?Tookey: The development of driverless car technology is driving a lot of interesting spin-off products in this area, on the basis that if you can get a car to navigate itself from A to B and recognise different things, then this technology could help someone with very low vision.
Giving the example of the OxSight Onyx, a device aimed at individuals with central vision loss, Tookey noted that products are needed for specific low vision conditions.
Going digitalDemand for electronic low vision aids is increasing. Anke told OT: “We have seen tremendous growth, not only with us, but worldwide in the field of electronic devices.”
While the company began in analogue low vision aids, it extended into digital devices several years ago with the SmartLux Digital.
Digital devices are an attractive option, and more transportable than ever. But analogue low vision aids still have a place in the daily lives of the individuals who require that support. Anke said: “If you’re just checking a price tag in the supermarket, or reading the menu in a café, you don’t need an electronic device, illuminated magnifiers are enough.”
For extended reading tasks, such as at work or school, however, electronic devices can be a popular solution, “and the development of these is going to become more refined,” Anke added.
“We have to bear in mind the expectations of coming generations of visually impaired people,” Anke continued, who will “in 10 years’ time, expect something electronic.”
What about the prevalence of smart phones? Could these, and their accessibility features, have an impact on this space?
Anke argues that “the hardware available today does not qualify to be the carrier for low vision applications,” and while they might feature magnifying applications, these may not be suitable for extended tasks. “We believe that this is only half of the answer to the requirements a modern low vision device of the future will have,” Anke said.
Eschenbach has been working on a research and development initiative looking into this field. Anke explained: “We are working on a completely new platform for the next generation of Eschenbach low vision devices, which will address all the potential questions the next generation of potential low vision patients might have.”
An early route to support
Both suppliers emphasised the impact that low vision aids can have for patients, and the role that optometrists can have in signposting individuals to access support.
“Optometry is the ideal profession to successfully take care of the potentially visually impaired,” Anke said. He highlighted that there are a range of devices to support patients who qualify for optical help for small print.
“The earlier we start to introduce optical help to those who might need more extensive help at a certain point of time, the better it is,” he emphasised.
Tookey also illustrated the benefits patients can have in accessing low vision technology earlier in their journey: “There are many shades of grey between being registered as blind, or in the actual low vision pathway, where a person may benefit from seeing the technology available.”
Some patients might not see the technologies that are available until their condition becomes permanent and they are perhaps referred to a charity. Tookey shared: “I’m really keen that eye health professionals know that these tools are out there and there is no cost to or time required for them to connect with us for CPD or to direct a patient.”
“My key message would be to reach out, engage and get up to speed. Once you know we are out here, you can help yourselves and so many more people,” he added.
A low vision frameworkThe Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) has been exploring the current low vision services in England and considering what a future framework could look like, inviting optometrists to provide feedback.
Speaking to OT about this work, Preeti Singla, optometry and low vision engagement manager at RNIB, said consultations had been well supported, with a total of 274 responses across two surveys.
Singla explained: “Many High Street practitioners, particularly in England, are keen to provide greater support for their patients who are visually impaired, but do not feel they are able to do so effectively due to multiple factors.”
RNIB is collaborating with sector partners to develop a low vision framework which will address inequality in service provision, Singla explained, “and we aim to provide a new free-to-access training programme for High Street practitioners, giving them the knowledge and tools to meet their patients’ needs.”
Discussing support for practitioners, Singla added: “Our regular peer discussion group, aimed at practitioners providing low vision services, aims to ensure that providers do not work in isolation, and have a platform to share good practice in this specialist field.”