FTC flags vision app’s misleading claims

September 23, 2015
Ongoing AOA efforts to safeguard consumers against the misleading claims made by online "eye exam" apps and services are resonating as a federal agency took its own action against one such company.

Ongoing AOA efforts to safeguard consumers against the misleading claims made by online "eye exam" apps and services are resonating as a federal agency took its own action against one such company.

While online programs tout consumer convenience, albeit with ambiguous and inaccurate claims, the AOA contends there are severe pitfalls in separating refractive tests from annual comprehensive eye exams performed in person by an eye care professional.

This message is being reinforced at every level by educating the public, news media, health providers and government officials, including state legislators and attorneys general, members of Congress, and medical device regulators at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"The AOA continually monitors and advocates for the public in many areas," says AOA Immediate Past-President David A. Cockrell, O.D. "We are concerned where violations of Federal or state law might exist."

Update: FTC orders vision app to stop misleading claims, reaches settlement

Concerns over a mobile app's misleading claims prompted the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action recently, resulting in a moratorium on the company's unsubstantiated claims.

The California-based company, Carrot Neurotechnology, Inc., and its co-owners, agreed to cease making unsupported claims that their "Ultimeyes" app can improve users' vision, and pay $150,000 in order to settle FTC charges that the company was deceiving consumers with false product claims.

Per the FTC's release, the company advertised and sold the app—for between $5.99 and $9.99 on the company's website, the Apple App and Google Play stores—with claims that it was "scientifically shown to improve vision" and that users would benefit from "comprehensive vision improvement," reducing the need for glasses and contact lenses.

The FTC alleged that the studies cited by Ultimeyes and one of the company's owners do not prove the product works, and furthermore, faulted the company for not disclosing the owner's company affiliation when touting his studies in advertising. The proposed order prohibits the company from misrepresenting scientific research, and requires it to clearly disclose such connections.

The action received national news, and further underscores the work AOA and state affiliates do to bring public awareness to misleading claims made by such services.

"By taking action against the 'Ultimeyes' app, the FTC has acted decisively to safeguard public health, an effort the AOA is proud to support," says AOA President Steven A. Loomis, O.D. "In fact, wherever we find similar violations of Federal or state law, our AOA and state associations will be pressing for full enforcement. Where laws may need to be updated to better protect the public, we will be an advocacy force."

Apprising the FDA

Earlier in August, Dr. Loomis issued an appeal to the FDA to investigate misleading claims connected to the unproven use of a medical device by one such online "eye exam" service, calling itself Opternative.

The letter calls into question the company's news release for asserting that its smartphone—derived technology is "Food and Drug Administration registered," a claim appearing to convey that the FDA has performed an assessment of this technology and view it favorably.

Additionally, the letter notes Opternative's claims appear to indicate functionality beyond Class I (General Controls), due to the intention to provide primary diagnosis or treatment decisions and perform patient-specific analysis. That would qualify the mobile app as a medical device, and should not be on the market until FDA officials complete all essential oversight.

"The AOA respectfully requests the FDA to take prompt steps to clarify the accuracy of Opternative's public assertions about its status with the FDA and the capabilities of its so-called online 'eye exam,'" Dr. Loomis stated in the letter (member login required).

Reaching out to ophthalmology

With patient health and safety at stake as never before, and some online "eye exams" relying on a network of affiliated ophthalmologists as prescribers, Dr. Loomis also sent a letter to the president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) to also make a stand.

Dr. Loomis called on the AAO to rebuke the dangerously inaccurate product claims made by online "eye exams" and work alongside the AOA to safeguard public health and healthy vision.

"Given the insidious nature of this threat to public health and the central role of ophthalmologists in the health care claims connected to it, I ask you to join me in educating your member ophthalmologists and the public about these substandard models of care," Dr. Loomis' letter states (member login required).

Affiliate contests online exam business in Illinois

Days after Opternative launched in its state, the Illinois Optometric Association (IOA) challenged the company's business model as a direct violation of the Illinois Optometric Practice Act.

Michael Horstman, IOA executive director, penned a letter to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, alleging the online "eye exam" company is practicing optometry without a license on the basis that Illinois law defines a practicing doctor of optometry as one who:

  1. Performs refractions or employs any other determinants of visual function.
  2. Prescribes corrective lenses, prism.
  3. Practices or offers or attempts to practice optometry as defined by (the practice act) either on his or her own behalf or as an employee of a person, firm or corporation whether under the supervision of his or her employer or not.

The letter states, furthermore, the company's "advertising would appear to mislead the patient ... they claim to be equivalent to a doctor-delivered eye exam when, in fact, what they are doing is but one component of such exam." Horstman says new technology cannot come at the expense of patients.

"We believe that a patient's eye health should not be compromised for either price or convenience, and we will take whatever steps are needed to ensure that this doesn't happen," Horstman says. "We are hopeful that the State of Illinois will agree and take appropriate action."

Campaign reaches tens of millions

Although online "eye exams" might draw a few headlines, it's AOA's leadership role in an ongoing, eye health public awareness campaign that's getting noticed.

The importance of annual comprehensive eye exams and full-scope care provided by doctors of optometry has reached tens of millions of Americans on more than 20 primetime cable TV networks, drive-time radio, Internet radio and digital ads through the Think About Your Eyes Campaign (TAYE).

In the past year, TAYE—with ads presented by the AOA—helped increase eye exams by more than 8% with millions of prospective patients searching the TAYE website and locating AOA members.

Learn more about how to join Think About Your Eyes Learn and AOA member pricing for the TAYE practice locator.

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