Can Infant Blindness Be Prevented Using Telemedicine?

Premature babies, who are at risk for a condition that has been found to cause blindness if left untreated, may be screened for the condition using telemedicine practices. A new study found that these types of practices are an effective strategy of screening for the condition and, if the use of telemedicine is widely adopted in this respect, great strides could be made in preventing blindness in infants, particularly in underserved areas of the country. In the wake of these findings, other developments in telemedicine continue to gain momentum.

Retinopathy of Prematurity

According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) is a “potentially blinding eye disorder that affects premature infants weighing about two and three-fourths of a pound (or 1250 grams) or less that are born before 31 weeks of gestation.” The NEI also reports that of the approximately 3.9 million infants born in the U.S. each year, 28,000 weigh two and three-fourths of a pound or less. Of these 28,000 premature infants 14,000 to 16,000 are estimated to suffer from some degree of ROP. While 90 percent of those infants have the milder form of the condition and eventually recover, about 1,000 to 1,500 infants annually suffer from the more severe form of ROP and require medical treatment. The NEI found that 400 to 600 infants in the U.S. each year go blind due to ROP. Blindness may be prevented, however, if treatment is sought.

Telemedicine Prevention Examined

Prevention of ROP was the topic of a recent study jointly conducted by the NEI, as part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The study examined the effectiveness of employing telemedicine methods to screen for ROP in at-risk infants. In particular, the “telemedicine strategy consisted of electronically sending photos of babies’ eyes to a distant image reading center for evaluation. Staff at the image reading center, who were trained to recognize signs of severe ROP, identified whether infants should be referred to an ophthalmologist for evaluation and potential treatment.” The results of the investigation revealed that using the telemedicine strategies, “non-physician image readers correctly identified 90 percent of the infants deemed to have [referral-warranted] ROP.” The study’s lead investigator, Graham E. Quinn, M.D., professor of ophthalmology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, asserted that the findings are “validation for a telemedicine approach to ROP screening and could help save thousands of infants from going blind.”

Other Telemedicine News

On June 25, 2014, Verizon announced the introduction of a new mobile app that would allow clinicians to video chat with patients to evaluate simple conditions such as colds and flus. The app, which is called Verizon Virtual Visits, encrypts the shared data between the patient and provider and stores that information in an Internet cloud, which complies with federal privacy and electronic health information requirements. Rick Black, vice president of Verizon’s health care practice stated that, “we are now seeing a shift in how health care is delivered in the U.S.,” and, in turn, the “latest mobile health offering can go a long way to enable a more efficient and effective U.S. healthcare system.”

The Cincinnati Children’s Hospital announced plans to employ telemedicine strategies to diagnose and treat patients at a hospital in the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, the Federation of State Medical Boards developed a proposal to allow physicians to more easily and quickly become licensed in additional states. This expedited process would “hopefully [weaken] one of the biggest regulatory barriers to the promulgation of telemedicine,” according to mobihealthnews.com. This process would require states to sign an interstate compact in order to allow doctors to be treated with reciprocity across borders based on this agreement rather than amend existing federal laws and regulations to allow physicians to practice in other states.