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Vision and Hearing

The Cost of COVID You Might Not See

Dr. Hunter Cherwek

Vice President of Clinical Services, Orbis International

Responding to the pandemic calls for all hands on deck. Whether a healthcare worker on the frontlines or social distancing to keep neighbors and loved ones safe, we all have a role to play. But now, a secondary threat has emerged just below the surface. If we overlook our other medical needs — like taking care of our vision — during the pandemic, the consequences can be serious.

Here in the United States, we’re seeing how missed routine eye exams can lead to blinding conditions not being caught early enough to treat them, or how halted school screenings can lead to children’s vision problems going undetected. For many vulnerable communities around the world, the effects are even more dire.

A serious problem 

Globally, 1.1 billion people live with vision loss, the overwhelming majority of them in low and middle-income countries. But 90 percent of vision loss in the world is completely avoidable. Often, a lack of access to quality eye care, something as simple as a routine cataract operation or even a pair of glasses, is what causes someone to lose their sight to avoidable causes. 

There’s no getting around it: the pandemic has made the work to end avoidable blindness harder and more urgent. Even before COVID-19 emerged, experts have been warning for years that, without action, global blindness will triple by 2050, and the number of people in need of eye care has been outpacing the number of trained ophthalmologists.

When eye care professionals receive quality training, they can provide quality eye care to their patients, but the pandemic has disrupted training in ways we’ve never seen before. Eye care teams normally hone their skills by working with patients, but many of those opportunities have disappeared as health systems focus on preventing the virus’s spread. Now eye care professionals are at risk of falling behind in their training or continuing medical education.

Looking to the future

Innovations that were once the way of the future have become the critical solutions that we’ve had to adopt and scale now. Simulation devices like virtual reality, artificial model eyes, and life-like manikins allow eye care teams to practice surgeries and other critical skills, even when they can’t see patients. It’s also safer, allowing teams to build their skills and confidence in a risk-free way before progressing to real-life procedures.

Distance learning has become another game-changer for ophthalmic training. At Orbis, we saw 200 percent growth in our telemedicine platform, Cybersight, in 2020 because eye care professionals have remained eager to continue learning and stay connected with one another, even when they can’t be together in-person. Mentors are helping their peers in low and middle-income countries by leading webinars and courses, providing expert second opinions on complex cases, and even observing and guiding sight-saving surgery halfway around the world, in real-time, without leaving their home or office through remote surgical mentorship. From boardrooms to classrooms, and even operating rooms, the world is rethinking how important work gets done safely by going virtual and leveraging technology. The same is true for the future of eye care. Getting training to eye care teams gets us closer to a world without avoidable blindness. That’s why we can’t let the pandemic slow us down.

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