Ending Preventable Blindness, One Patient at a Time
By Sunil Gupta, MD
Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in adults in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Early detection and treatment can reduce the risk of blindness by 95%, but unfortunately, only about 40% of people with diabetes pursue early detection or receive the recommended annual retinal examination.
When I founded IRIS, my only hope was to create a more efficient stream of care for patients with diabetic eye disease. I got into medicine to help people, and as a retina specialist, I feel very blessed to help people retain their vision. Too often, however, patients came to my chair with advanced stages of retinal disease that had progressed too far for me to do anything other than stop it from getting worse.
The most frustrating part? If I had only seen them earlier, I could have saved their vision. Diabetic retinopathy (DR), which occurs when high blood sugar levels cause damage to blood vessels in the eye, is 95% preventable if caught early. And for patients with diabetes, it is a matter of when, not if they will develop DR. If I could only examine every patient with diabetes, that would stop this problem, right? The issue is that there are so many patients with diabetes, most don’t ever come to see me until it’s too late. DR is asymptomatic – that means that you could enjoy full vision until one day, you have a retinal hemorrhage and your severe diabetic retinopathy has finally reared it’s ugly head.
Early detection is the answer. For me, the question was how: how to get to all of the patients that needed me. We decided the most successful route would be to go to the patients instead of having them come to us. Patients are typically much more compliant with visiting their primary care physician, so that’s exactly where we went.
IRIS employs licensed ophthalmologists and retina specialists in their IRIS Reading Center, who log in remotely to the telemedicine grading platform and diagnose disease in the patient images. The IRIS platform utilizes machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve the experience; after images are captured and uploaded to the cloud, they are run through a series of algorithms to enhance and analyze the photos for the grading physicians to ensure a rapid, accurate diagnosis every time.
Since our inception in 2013, we have served more than 300 primary care organizations. In our first 5 years, IRIS performed more than 350,000 patient exams for diabetic retinopathy and other diseases, identifying nearly 15% with imminent sight-threatening disease and over 40% with some level of retinal pathology. This is why we do what we do. That is 350,000 patients that were not getting their retinas examined at all. They are now aware of this disease and can continue to receive this exam proactively and maintain their vision.
Of that number, we have identified over 50,000 patients with advanced sight-threatening pathologies that would have led to imminent blindness had they remained undetected, resulting in what they are calling “IRIS Saves.” That is 50,000 patients who would have lost sight within the next year. Without this exam, they would have gone blind.
The CDC predicts that between 2018 and 2050, based on overall population growth projections, the number of Americans with diabetes is expected to grow more than five-fold to 161 million, meaning that 1 in 3 Americans will have type 2 diabetes if current trends continue. As a result, the number of patients with diabetic retinopathy is expected to surge by a similar amount to 1 in 5 Americans, or about 65 million people, suffering from retinal disease and the risk of blindness if the crisis is not addressed.
IRIS is dedicated to helping solve this problem by partnering with healthcare organizations to increase patient compliance with recommended annual retinal exams. The IRIS retinal telemedicine platform is a complete end-to-end solution that helps clients close their care gaps and achieve quality metrics while driving additional revenue.
IRIS’ talented team of employees has accomplished so much in a rapidly shifting marketplace since our inception, but what I’m most proud of is that our goal has always remained the same: to improve lives and change futures. This unwavering dedication to our original vision has also resulted in commercial success. Together, our IRIS team trusted partners, and clients will work to End Preventable Blindness.
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