Do Eye Health Apps Do More Harm Than Good? 3 Eye-Popping Facts You Should Know

Posted By Key-Whitman Eye Center || 10-Feb-2015

Dallas Eye CenterThe meteoric rise of mHealth (mobile health) in the form of smartphone and tablet apps is one key area where investors and tech leaders are investing their time and money. Just look at Apple's latest operating system, iOS8, which was released last fall. The iOS8 includes HealthKit, which enables developers to easily share data and insights, and the Health app, which helps consumers monitor their fitness and nutrition data in one handy location. Apple’s highly-anticipated watch promises to deliver even more health-centric capabilities.

With the rise of healthcare consumerism, consumers are demanding health apps to help inform decisions about their health, and apps for eye health are no exception. There are a multitude of eye health apps available on the market today, and many do a great job of helping people learn about and manage vision problems and aid doctors as a diagnostic or productivity tool.

According to Key-Whitman Eye Center’s President and Chief Surgeon Jeffrey Whitman, M.D., “Eye health apps typically fall into three categories: apps for consumers (educate, manage health issues); apps for doctors (compendiums for comparative and diagnostic purposes); and apps for underserved areas/third-world countries (telemedicine and diagnostic purposes). However, consumers should be wary of using smartphone or tablet apps to self-diagnose.”

If you’re a fan of apps pertaining to your health, you’ll find a wide range of apps specifically for eye health on iTunes and Google Play. Before you download, here are three things you should know about eye health apps first.

1. You should leave the diagnostics to the professionals.

“The biggest limitation of apps that diagnose eye and vision problems is in the form of accuracy. They are very good when a problem is very obvious and something is going wrong. What the apps don’t replace is the eye doctor’s ability to detect diseases and conditions early, when permanent damage can be prevented,” says Dr. Whitman.

For example, there are apps, such as visualFields Easy, that screen for the visual field (peripheral vision) loss resulting from glaucoma. Unfortunately, by that point irreversible vision loss has already occurred. “The same holds true for apps pertaining to macular degeneration. These can be nice detection tools, but they are crude compared to what can be done in your eye care professional’s office.

It is especially important for people ages 40 and older to get annual eye exams. Early stages of diseases like glaucoma are undetectable by apps and patients don’t have noticeable symptoms either. This is where seeing an eye doctor is critical, because we can detect changes that you (and smartphone apps) don’t notice in your vision yet,” Dr. Whitman says.

Most people in this country have access to quality eye care and shouldn’t rely on apps for diagnosis, especially if they are in a high-risk category. For example, Dr. Whitman advises, “People at risk for glaucoma should be screened right away. You’re at risk if you are age 40 or older, have a family history of the disease, are of African-American or Hispanic descent and/or you have diabetes.”

2. Apps that educate and help manage vision problems do the most good.

If you have questions about eye conditions and diseases that concern you, look for apps that offer insight or tools to help simplify your life. Dr. Whitman finds, “our patients use a variety of apps today that can be very beneficial and fun, too. Apps for big clocks, talking calculators and optical illusions have been around for years. The National Institutes for Health offers a comprehensive educational app, Living with Low Vision, and you can look for apps to learn about specific conditions like pink eye, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, dry eye syndrome and more.”

For people experiencing the natural decline in near vision that comes with age and want to “exercise” their eyes, the GlassesOff app may be of interest. Researchers at the University of California Berkley found the perceptual training program used in GlassesOff resulted in significant improvements in both contrast sensitivity and letter recognition in study subjects.

“I encourage patients to look for apps that list steps you should take regularly, foods you should eat, how often you should go in for an eye exam and what you should do if you notice X, Y or Z changes to your vision. These educational apps and tools are more helpful to the patient than diagnostic tools. There are a variety of apps where you can screen for certain conditions and take an eye exam that may be helpful, but you should never use any apps as a replacement for a regular eye health exam,” Dr. Whitman cautions.

3. Some eye health apps are best for use in underserved areas only.

In the past year, new apps have been developed to photograph the inside of the eye and retina, screen for pediatric vision problems, scan the eye to detect anemia and more. Recently, a new smartphone camera adaptor and app called Peek (Portable Eye Examination Kit) Retina has been lauded for its potential ability to screen people in remote areas, for glaucoma and other health conditions (diabetes and high blood pressure) that are often related to eye problems.

Dr. Whitman believes technological advances like these may offer significant benefits for people without access to quality medical care. “I’m very excited to see how innovators like Peek Retina will have an impact on preventing blindness for people in remote areas and in third-world countries. Using telemedicine and apps to diagnose eye conditions and ultimately arrange for the patient’s care will make a big difference in quality of life for the underserved,” Dr. Whitman says.

Smartphone and tablet apps noted above are provided for reference only, no endorsement is implied. Consult your eye care professional regarding apps pertaining to your specific eye health needs.

Photo Source: iStock for Getty Images

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