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August 15, 2013

Doctors Prevent Blindness With 'Revolutionary' Phone App

by Selah Hennessy

Since January hundreds of Kenyans have undergone eye tests, not in a clinic with a doctor, but on their own doorstep, using a smart-phone application.  The app uses a camera to scan the lens of the eye for cataracts, and its developers say it could save millions of people from blindness. 

Dr. Andrew Bastawrous from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine developed the new application along with a small team.

He is currently in Nakuru, Kenya, where he is testing the technology, and told VOA that it appears to be working.

“They are absolutely loving it.  They are all asking to have a go and have their vision tested.  So it is certainly very user friendly,” said Bastawrous.

So far about 2,000 Kenyans have been given eye tests.  The developers estimate about 10 percent of those had cataracts and needed treatment.

Stewart Jordan is an independent application designer who helped develop the app called PEEK, or Portable Eye Examination Kit.  He says the kit includes a clip-on camera, which works with the app to check glasses prescription, diagnose cataracts or examine the back of the eye for diseases, from glaucoma to diabetes.

In just a few seconds, he said, you can take a clear image of the back of the eye.  

“I can then take that image, capture it, e-mail it, and upload it to our back-end system.  People at Moorfield’s Eye Hospital can review it and anyone can send me feedback," he explained. "So if I was actually trying to diagnose a patient in the field, I could get remote assistance on exactly what conditions we were dealing with and advise on how to treat it.”

The team is testing PEEK on 5,000 Kenyans.  Jordan said the team is paying for the treatment of every patient with cataracts, including the cost of a driver to deliver the patient to the hospital, overnight accommodation and food. “We are talking about $40 on a cataract operation.  And that can literally take someone who cannot even tell if you are shining a torch in their eyes and give them 20/20 vision.  It is remarkable,” he added.

Jordan and Bastawrous said they developed the application to reach the “poorest of the poor.”

An estimated 39 million people around the world are blind, with 90 percent living in low-income countries where there is little or no access to eye specialists.

SightSavers is an international charity that works to combat blindness in developing countries. 

Program Development Advisor Imran Khan said giving eye examinations in poor or isolated regions can be a major obstacle.

“If we look at the supply side of the equation, there are just not enough trained doctors or nurses to go out into these rural communities, find these patients and bring them back to the base hospital," Khan said. "And if we look on the other side, the demand, a lot of the patients in these rural communities are not really aware of the benefits that these services can provide.”

But Khan said with new technology like PEEK, eye care should become much more accessible.

“By using means to go out into the communities and really use community health workers or people that we can train to go out and find these patients, it is a lot more effective,"  Khan said. "So it becomes more affordable and we increase access to care.”

Dr. Andrew Bastawrous is using PEEK alongside conventional eye testing gear to compare results.  He says the PEEK app results appear to be keeping up with his hospital equipment valued at well over $100,000 and his team of 15 trained personnel.