AOA emergency summit March 24 raises alarm over children’s eye health
Polls are saying what doctors of optometry are seeing—a deleterious rise in the prevalence of myopia, digital eyestrain and other conditions in children brought on by pandemic-inspired screen time.
According to a national C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital poll, parents were asked what their top concerns were for their children during the pandemic. The No. 1 response: overuse of social media/screen time named by 72% of parents polled.
Overuse can lead to conditions such as digital eyestrain, myopia and other conditions—raising alarm among doctors of optometry. To address the concern, the virtual AOA Emergency Children’s Vision Summit is set for March 24 at 8:30 p.m. ET. Over two panels, experts on children’s eye health and vision care will assess the crisis and chart a course forward.
Doctors, optometry students and paraoptometrics are invited to register and attend this important summit.
“Children’s eye health and vision care are a significant public health concern,” says AOA President William T. Reynolds, O.D., who will open the summit. “With rates of myopia on the rise, accelerated by the pandemic, doctors of optometry are uniquely positioned to take the lead in developing action steps to respond to this burgeoning crisis.
“Early diagnosis and treatment are critical to optimizing young people’s eye health and vision and can prevent future vision loss,” Dr. Reynolds says. “Unchecked, these eye and vision problems can lead to difficulties in a child’s school performance, social interactions and self-esteem. Eye and vision problems in childhood can manifest into adulthood, impacting adults’ educational achievement, employment opportunities and social interactions.”
Assessing the problem
Last April, Gallup reported 83% of U.S. school-age children were learning remotely through school-sponsored online distance education. Data suggested most children ages 6-12 were in front of a digital screen twice as much as before the pandemic—or for what feels like "most of the day."
Metrics of children's screen habits were up across the board with traffic to kids' apps up nearly 70%, viewership of kids' TV programming up 58%, never mind increased time on gaming or nongaming apps worldwide up 20% and in phone traffic.
“As a consequence of the pandemic, children have been spending less time outside and more time than ever in front of screens doing schoolwork and at play,” says Terri A. Gossard, O.D., M.S., one of the summit’s panelists and member of the AOA’s Board of Trustees. “This is doubly concerning—time spent outside has been proven to reduce myopia progression in children and increased screen time can lead to visual strain and discomfort.
“Additionally, the process of obtaining eye care was initially complicated by recommendations to delay eye examinations,” says Dr. Gossard, one of the founders of an eye care center for children at Oyler School in Ohio. “Parents may be unaware that doctors of optometry are more than ready to provide this valued health care service following established safety protocols.”
Charting a course forward
Just as alarming are projections cited by the National Eye Institute that almost half the world will be myopic by 2050.
Doctors are uniquely qualified to lead the conversation on children’s eye care and vision health and educate parents, policymakers and educators among others on the subject, says summit panelist Jennifer Zolman, O.D., chair of the AOA InfantSEE ® and Children’s Vision Committee.
Only a small percentage of children get an eye examination by an eye doctor prior to starting first grade, according to an AOA Health Policy Institute paper. Yet the AOA’s evidence-based clinical practice guideline on comprehensive pediatric eye and vision examination recommends preschool children should receive in-person, comprehensive eye exams at least once between the ages of 3 and 5 years to prevent or diagnose and treat eye or vision conditions that may impact their visual development.
“Children need our help more than ever before, and their parents need our guidance so they can advocate for their children,” Dr. Zolman says. “In-person, comprehensive eye exams are so important, but especially during these times to ensure top performance of children’s binocular vision systems and continued maintenance of the health of their eyes,” she says. “This is our opportunity to be the experts to help our youngest patients succeed.”
Empowering emergency event
It’s an especially important time for doctors of optometry to attend the summit, says Lori L. Grover, O.D., Ph.D., also a panelist and member of the AOA Board of Trustees.
The summit will empower doctors of optometry with the tools and guidance to further reach out and educate their communities about the value of comprehensive eye care. Children’s vision remains an AOA priority, as it continues to engage federal, state and agency policymakers in 2021. A toolkit is being readied for summit attendees.
“Doctors of optometry continue to lead the nation in gaining recognition of the value of evidence-based, comprehensive eye examination for improving population health outcomes and health equity in children,” says Dr. Grover, a member of the Evidence-Based Optometry Guideline Development Group that produced AOA’s clinical practice guideline on pediatric eye and vision examination. “The Children’s Vision Summit provides a timely view of the landscape to inform and encourage advocacy on how to best move children’s health further forward.
“As health care professionals, our duty to patients is to deliver optimum care based on what we know works,” she says. “The summit gives all doctors of optometry an easily accessible opportunity to ask questions, get updated information and apply it across all care delivery settings.”
A second AOA event focusing on children’s eye care and vision health, the School Readiness Summit, for the public and policymakers will be conducted in July.
It is said that a message must be repeated multiple times before it sinks in with an audience. During a satellite media tour, AOA President Ronald L. Benner, O.D., used that strategy to extol the essentialness of annual back-to-school eye examinations and link them to student performance in the classroom.
Change in standard of care is not yet warranted, say doctors of optometry who wrote editorial for study. Additional research is needed.