Why Diabetic Retinal Exams are Important to Primary Physicians & Other Healthcare Providers

what is a diabetic eye exam

Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is the leading cause of preventable blindness for people 20 to 65 years of age in the United States. Just over 37 million people have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which means 9.3% of the population is at risk for blindness. 


Diabetes Infographic

Source: Centers for Disease Control (CDC.gov)


Now, imagine being able to prevent diabetic blindness for those 37 million people. With point-of-care diabetic retinal exams, we can. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that all patients with diabetes or pre-diabetes receive an annual retinal eye exam or diabetic eye exam for diabetic retinopathy (DR). However, historically, only 40-50% of the diabetic patient population receives this important annual diabetic eye test.

This begs the question: “How do we reach the underserved diabetic patient population with preventative measures?” 

The answer starts with primary care physicians (PCPs) and other healthcare providers. When medical professionals outside of the ophthalmologist’s office understand the importance of diabetic eye exams, they can help those patient populations that are at risk.  

Find out what providers can do—and how IRIS can help.


Why should PCPs and other healthcare providers prioritize diabetic eye exams? 

When it comes to treating issues with the eyes, patients often think of the eye doctor first and foremost. But when it comes to diabetic retinopathy, preventative screenings can start well before they step foot in the ophthalmologist’s office.

While blindness from diabetes is permanent, the good news is that it is almost completely preventable—especially if diabetic patients receive an annual diabetic eye exam. Early detection and treatment of diabetic retinopathy is key and reduces the risk of severe vision loss by 90%. However, according to the prominent retinal surgeon and IRIS founder, Dr. Sunil Gupta, a high percentage of patients with diabetes never get screened or receive an annual diabetic eye test. 

“Retina specialists now utilize advanced therapies that virtually guarantee that patients do not have to lose their vision if detected early,” said Dr. Gupta. “We have spent over a decade developing effective pharmacological therapies that have changed the realities for diabetic patients with indications of eye disease.”

While the comprehensive annual dilated eye exam is still considered a standard of care for patients with diabetes, reality shows a majority of patients do not get a retinal scan for diabetes annually. By performing a diabetic eye test as a routine annual diagnostic in primary care, providers identify more diseases earlier in patients otherwise going untreated for pathology. Eye care providers and primary care providers gain access to these at-risk patients early and can reduce the risk of vision loss and improve outcomes for these patients.

According to the CDC’s National Diabetes Statistics Report, “Diabetes can be treated and managed by healthful eating, regular physical activity, and medications to lower blood glucose levels. Another critical part of diabetes management is reducing cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high lipid levels, and tobacco use. Patient education and self-care practices also are important aspects of disease management that help people with diabetes stay healthy.” 

By having the data from the annual eye exam documented as part of the patient’s medical record, primary care can also contribute to improved outcomes in vision and overall health and management of this patient population. 

“Early detection is the answer,” explained Dr. Gupta. “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.”

The annual diabetic eye exam for diabetic eye diseases, such as diabetic retinopathy, is an important tool to monitor the overall health of diabetic populations, especially as health providers look to improve their HEDIS compliance rates. With recent advances in telemedical screening technology, these quick and simple eye tests can be administered in the primary care setting, driving up screening rates and reducing the number of patients with vision loss. 


Diabetic Eye Exam FAQs 

Interested in learning more about diabetic eye exams and why healthcare providers should consider providing these sight-saving retinal screenings? Check out some of these frequently asked questions. 

Why is a diabetic eye exam important to FQHCs?

Diabetic eye exams are important to Federally Qualified Health Centers, or FQHCs, for the same reasons they are important to all healthcare providers. They allow FQHCs to: 

    1. Reach underserved patient populations
      • American Indian or Alaska Native, non-Hispanic Black, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic Asian people are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than non-Hispanic White people (14.5%, 12.1%, 11.8%, 9.5%, and 7.4%, respectively).
    2. Prevent irreversible blindness
    3. Improver overall outcomes of health for patients with diabetes


Why is a diabetic eye exam important to home health providers?

As of 2022, there are over 450K home care provider businesses in the US. These providers deliver care to patients who cannot or do not have the means to leave their homes—and that includes patients with diabetes. Diabetic eye exams are important to home health providers because the exams allow them to care proactively for patients who would otherwise be unable to receive these screenings. 


What is the difference between a regular eye exam and a diabetic eye exam?

A regular or comprehensive eye exam is typically administered by a licensed Optometrist or Ophthalmologist. This exam includes multiple assessments of the health of the eye and vision. During this exam, a patient can expect the following steps:

    1. Visual acuity test to determine vision
    2. The measure of your eye pressure
    3. Evaluation of eye health

A diabetic eye exam focuses primarily on the small blood vessels of your retina to determine if the patient may be showing signs of diabetic retinopathy. With the right equipment and software partner, these preventative screenings can be done at the comfort of a patient’s pharmacy or primary care provider. 


How often should a diabetic have an eye test?

Generally, this should be an annual event for someone with Type 1 or 2 diabetes.  According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology website (AAO):

“People with type 1 diabetes should have annual screenings for diabetic retinopathy beginning 5 years after the onset of their disease, whereas those with type 2 diabetes should have a prompt screening at the time of diagnosis and at least yearly screenings thereafter.” 

Certainly, if a patient has poor glucose control or high blood pressure a provider may seek to increase the frequency of these exams.


How is diabetic retinopathy diagnosed?

Diabetic retinopathy is diagnosed through a retinal scan for diabetes conducted by an eye care professional or by any provider with access to a fundus camera and appropriate software. A fundus camera captures images of the back of the retina as viewed through the pupil. These images are then examined by an eye care professional to determine the existence or extent of DR.


What is an IRIS diabetic eye exam?

A diabetic eye exam is crucial for anyone with diabetes. Patients can be aware of diabetic retinopathy early if they receive annual r diabetic eye exams. 

A fundus camera is used to take photos of a patient’s retinas without the need for dilation.  The images are securely uploaded to IRIS’s remote grading platform for interpretation by a board-certified eye care provider. Results and diagnoses are seamlessly returned to the ordering provider’s EMR for follow-up and referral if necessary.   

Early detection of DR is important because the early stages don’t always cause noticeable changes in vision. A retinal imaging exam can help detect disease so actionable steps can be taken to prevent it from progressing. 



How IRIS Can Help

With IRIS, PCPs and other healthcare providers can administer simple yet effective diabetic teleretinal screening exams that ensure more at-risk diabetic individuals get the preventive testing they need to save their sight.

Want to learn more about how you can easily provide your diabetic patients with an annual diabetic eye test? Connect with us for a free demo. 

Interested in digging into why we’re committed to ending preventable blindness? Read more from our founder Dr. Gupta about his passion for it.

Get started with IRIS today.

Want to know if IRIS is right for you? Schedule a one-on-one consultation with our team. We’re here to help.