The Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) has established a new research unit to improve current eyecare models and tackle the backlog of undiagnosed and untreated conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Headed by Specsavers former group eye health director Mr Peter Larsen in an honorary capacity, the Health Services Research unit will examine how innovative technologies, telemedicine and better coordination between different parts of the eyecare sector could increase access to screening services, early treatment and prevent avoidable blindness.
According to CERA, the research will target diseases where blindness can often be prevented with early treatment such as diabetic eye disease, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and cataracts.
“This research will focus on how to best deliver eyecare services in the real world rather than the lab,’’ Larsen said. “We will look at how we can better connect different parts of the system from optometrists to eye surgeons to increase access and improve the quality of care we provide for patients.’’
In Australia and around the world, governments have cancelled elective surgeries and imposed restrictions that only allowed optometrists to see urgent cases. Ophthalmologists and organisations like the Macular Disease Foundation Australia have also voiced concerns about patients missing sight-saving appointments.
Other data from Optometry Australia this month has shown there were one million fewer general optometry services during the peak COVID period.
And data from Specsavers at the start of the pandemic in March and April showed 600,000 fewer Medicare funded optometry services compared to the previous year. In April and May, 25,208 Specsavers patients that likely had eye conditions requiring specialist attention did not attend appointments.
Larsen said eyecare services were struggling to keep up before COVID-19 – with demand for Medicare funded eye services rising about 5% annually. This is expected to be exacerbated post-pandemic as people with undiagnosed and untreated conditions pour into the system.
But in the meantime, the pandemic has accelerated the greater use of telemedicine and remote services.
Insights may have ‘global significance’
CERA managing director Professor Keith Martin said new health services research would complement to the work already under way at CERA to encourage the early detection and treatment of eye disease.
While the research would initially examine backlogs experienced in Australia – he believes its findings could have global significance.
“Peter Larsen brings great knowledge of delivering service to patients from his role at Specsavers, which include introducing new systems and approaches which have improved the detection and referral for disease such as glaucoma and diabetic eye disease,’’ Martin said.
“His research, working with private and public providers across the eye health system, will complement the work under way at CERA researchers to develop new ways of diagnosing and monitoring patients with eye disease.
He said COVID-19 had added impetus to the need for new technologies which enable remote screening and diagnosis and reduce the need for patients to attend a clinic in person.
“Our researchers are developing a digital app to help patients with age-related macular degeneration monitor their vision at home, an artificial intelligence screening program that can detect blinding eye diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration and cardiovascular disease, and even an eye test to detect Alzheimer’s disease,” he added.
“These technologies have the potential to transform the way we deliver eye and health care, but we also need to have the right systems in place for them to be delivered.”