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Diabetic Retinopathy is on the Rise—Fortunately it can be Stopped if Caught Early

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A disturbing trend in public health is the growth of diabetic retinopathy. Data from a Research and Markets study shows the number of prevalent cases in the seven major markets (7MM)– the U.S., U.K., Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Spain– is expected to grow from 4.9 million in 2012 to 7.2 million in 2022. Japan and the U.S. are the top two 7MM countries in number of cases, each having over 2 million. In 2022, Japan is predicted to have nearly half of all diabetic retinopathy cases in the 7MM with a total of 3.55 million.

What is Diabetic Retinopathy and how is it Treated?

One of the best ways to prevent diabetic retinopathy is through education and awareness. As the name suggests, this disease causes damage to the retina as a result of diabetes. There are often no symptoms in the initial stages. At worst, the patient may experience mild blurring or spots in the visual field that go away. Blood vessels in the eye rupture and cause blood and fluid to leak out leading to spots or blurring. The growth of new blood vessels in the area can also aggravate the problem.

According to the National Eye Institute, treatment of diabetic retinopathy depends on which of four stages the disease has reached. In the first three stages the retinopathy is considered non-proliferative or less severe. Patients can improve conditions by controlling blood sugar and cholesterol levels in their diet as long as a macular edema has not occurred.

Once the retinopathy becomes proliferative, or severe, scatter laser treatment is applied to newly formed vessels to shrink them. Macular edemas are also treated with laser surgery known as focal laser surgery, which stops fluid leakage in the macula. When those treatments fail, a viteroctomy, which removes blood from the center of the eye may be needed.

Technology Plays a Major Role in Early Detection

Since symptoms of diabetic retinopathy often do not show up until after much of the damage has been done to the retina, any procedure that could provide early detection would be a blessing. One tool that makes early diagnosis possible is electronic medical records software (EMR). Patient history stored electronically can be retrieved faster than with paper-based filing systems and is a much less error-prone process. When doctors refer patients to specialists, EMR makes it easier for the specialist to get up to speed with patient history, especially critical if a diabetic patient gets referred to an ophthalmologist to address blurred vision problems.

A scanning system developed by Intelligent Retinal Imaging Systems (IRIS) uses a combination of computer and human analysis to check for problems. The patient sits in front of a camera that takes images of the eye before uploading them to a cloud-based system. Automated processes examine and evaluate the images before sending the images to a screening specialist for further analysis. If there are any issues, the patient is notified within a few days. The process usually takes about five minutes and usually does not require pupil dilation beforehand.

Since diabetic retinopathy cases are expected to increase by the millions in the U.S. and Japan in the next decade, the potential for millions of additional cases of blindness is great. Technology has advanced to where early detection is possible. The only things left to do are for diabetic patients to get their screenings and for everyone else to avoid the risk factors that lead to diabetes.