How ODs detect chronic conditions—and save lives

In his 22 years of practice, Harvey Richman, O.D., has detected countless hypertension cases, inflammatory conditions, undiagnosed strokes, and even some tumors and cancers—just through a routine eye exam.

As eye care practitioners do more systemic evaluations, "we are actually becoming the primary care professionals for eye care," says Dr. Richman, a member of the AOA Third Party Center's Executive Committee.

A new study released by UnitedHealthcare (UHC) supports this role. The results show a "significant correlation between an eye examination and the early detection and subsequent intervention for certain systemic diseases," says Richard Soden, O.D., a member of the AOA's Third Party Center Executive Committee and vice president for clinical affairs at the SUNY College of Optometry.

What the study shows

Health services company Optum—working on behalf of UHC—evaluated how often eye care practitioners played a role in identifying eight chronic conditions. The results, released on Feb. 20, represented 820,000 UHC members with continuous medical and vision coverage.

Among the study population, practitioners detected more than 4,000 cases of chronic conditions. The most common were multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Crohn's disease and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

On average, UHC members were diagnosed a little over two weeks after a comprehensive eye exam.

Hypertension and high cholesterol also were common, which matches Dr. Richman's practice experience. He notes that he and his partners have found many patients with uncontrolled, undiagnosed hypertension and made referrals to primary care physicians and—when needed—emergency rooms. These patients all had high blood pressure, but they never knew they had a problem until they had their eyes examined.

The AOA would like to see more studies investigate this issue, Dr. Soden says.

Study reinforces AOA eye care campaign

Dr. Richman, who reviewed the UHC study, says its findings mesh with the AOA's "rethink eyecare" campaign.

This initiative was launched to encourage insurance plans to recognize the advantages of using ODs for all primary eye and vision care. The campaign supports an integrated approach for health and vision plans.

If marketed appropriately, the hope is the UHC study will incentivize other third party payers to encourage patients to get their eyes examined more frequently.

Optometrists have helped heart attacks, strokes and other medical emergencies simply by providing comprehensive eye examinations. "We have saved lives," Dr. Richman says.

They also could help save money. Integrating eye care into medical plans would result in significant cost savings for insurance carriers, patients and the country as a whole, he adds. "Health care costs will go down if we're able to treat [conditions] at an earlier stage."

March 3, 2014

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