ECOO seeking optometrists to take part in AI screening project

The initiative is an opportunity to ensure optometry has a voice in how AI could be employed in eye care in the future, said AOP chairman, Dr Julie-Anne Little

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The European Council of Optometry and Optics (ECOO) is calling for optometrists to express an interest in an EU project investigating artificial intelligence (AI) and retinal imaging.

The I(eye)-Screen project seeks to partner AI experts with ophthalmologists and optometrists who use optical coherence tomography (OCT) to screen for age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

The project identified AMD as the most common cause of legal blindness in people over the age of 50, with 110 million individuals at risk. Signs of the disease can be identified by OCT before visual symptoms occur.

The initiative, which involves all EU countries as well as Great Britain, Norway and Switzerland, will see participating optometrists performing OCT imaging with adults above 55 years old with functional vision. Images will be analysed for early or intermediate age-related macular degeneration by an AI group.

If AMD is identified, the patient will be referred to a partnering ophthalmologist who will perform a clinical follow up four times a year over the course of three years, to identify progression.

If the project is approved, it is expected that a budget will be granted to cover the screening and referral of images.

The optometrist will screen approximately 200 to 250 individuals over one year, and refer around 25 individuals to the partnering ophthalmologist.

Following the study, researchers seek to make a reliable AI-based tool available for the optical community, along with a legal framework as a base for collaboration.

ECOO has outlined that all optometrists using a Topcon Maestro OCT are encouraged to apply. Applications can be made through an online form

Julie-Anne Little, AOP chairman, said of the initiative: “Involvement in studies such as these are important opportunities to ensure that optometry has a voice in how AI tools and machine learning may be employed in eye care in the future.”

Little added: “Primary care optometrists need to be central to how such tools can deliver effective integrated eye care for patients.”

Optometrists who are already in contact with an ophthalmologist using a Spectralis OCT, and would like to work with them, can indicate this on the application form. Optometrists without a contact will be matched through the initiative.

The deadline for expressions of interest is 30 July, with earlier applications standing a higher chance of success.

Inviting optometrists to express an interest in the study, ECOO agreed that the project is a “key opportunity” for the profession to have a voice in the use of AI tools, “to input in any guidance on the topic and to define how ‘shared care’ is taken forward.”

The research proposal

ECOO, which represents national associations from 21 countries across Europe, is part of a consortium of stakeholders collaborating on the EU funding application for the project.

An EU research grant for Personalised screening and risk assessment next door for life-long healthy vision based on automated AI-tools has already been successfully submitted, receiving the highest score and moving to the final round of the funding application.

The proposal has been based on the fact that 200 million individuals worldwide are affected by AMD, and 1.9 billion people are at risk, ECOO said.

The project will first gather retrospective data sets to train an advanced AI-based algorithm for early and intermediate AMD identification and detection of risk progression.

A prospective clinical study would then take place, collaborating with optometrists to validate the performance of the AI algorithm using OCT devices. This would be followed by a proof-of-concept of feasibility, where independent optometrist sites across Europe will screen individuals in a real-world setting to collect data for validation.

The final stage of the project would be an EU-conforming ethical and legal framework providing health care measures, preparing regulatory approval, and establishing AI-based prevention strategies.