MERCER ISLAND, Washington — According to the World Health Organization, 39 million people worldwide are blind and 246 million are victims of low vision. Around 90 percent of the globe’s visually impaired are living in developing countries and 80 percent of these cases can be prevented or cured.
Traditionally, the economics behind eye care access and delivery in low-income countries has been plagued by high costs due to complications in transport, availability of electricity and the use of diagnostic equipment. However, the recent development of a Smartphone app that can perform eye examinations in even the world’s most remote regions is a promising step in effectively combating the dire effects of avoidable visual impairments.
An ophthalmologist from the London School of Hygiene, Dr. Andrew Bastrawrous, has created a mobile app known as Portable Eye Examination Kit, or PEEK, that can perform a variety of functions to aid in diagnosing eye problems and prescribing remedies for care. The main features of the device include the ability to measure vision, examine refractive error, take photos of the back of the eye to identify diseases and check for the presence of cataracts.
The results of each examination can be electronically stored and geo-tagged with the GPS location of the patient. This aids the health worker in follow-up procedures while also providing Hospital directors with an accurate database to locate individuals who need further care. Additionally, text messages can be individually sent to arrange a time for a home visit appointment.
Bastrawrous works with a team of physicians, engineers and experts in business from various institutions in the United Kingdom as a part of the organization PEEK Vision. The group aims to empower and train health workers to utilize the PEEK hardware to diagnose eye diseases and to simplify the logistics and to lower the costs of monitoring and treatment.
The formation of PEEK Vision and its technology was motivated by Bastrawrous’s epidemiological research in rural Kenya to understand the reasoning behind the nation’s high rate of blindness. As Bastrawrous attempted to travel through Kenya’s isolated areas to treat and gather data surrounding eye diseases, he soon realized the enormous financial and time-consuming burden involved in the movement of resources.
Bastrawrous’s recognition of the need for a more efficient alternative to conduct his study led him to the idea of utilizing mobile technology to complete his work. In a country where 93 percent of its population is mobile phone users, Bastrawrous identified the opportunity to utilize the pervasiveness of mobile technology to combat a serious health problem.
The app allows people with little training to perform a thorough examination. The use of a lightweight device substitutes the traditional equipment, which is costly, cumbersome and fragile. A procedure that was once price tagged at over $125,000 and required a team of 15 health professionals has now been reduced to only $500 and can be executed by one healthcare professional with a Smartphone and a bike. The power supply is harnessed by the use of solar-powered backpacks, which are worn by health workers as they venture out to visit patients in their respective communities.
Before PEEK Vision plans to scale up its system, its technology is undergoing rigorous testing in both Kenya and the UK to ensure sustainability and efficacy. As the results are captured, the global healthcare community moves closer to being only a text message away from detecting and curing eye diseases among the world’s most vulnerable.
– Talia Langman