Diabetic Retinopathy Screening Telehealth Project

UPHCS has been been awarded a total of $65,000 in grant funding from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Michigan – Investing in Upper Peninsula Health program, with $20,000 coming from a co-sponsorship provided by the Superior Health Foundation. The funding will be used to launch an initiative in Ontonagon, Houghton, Keweenaw and Baraga counties.  Through partnerships with health care providers in the region (including Upper Great Lakes Family Health Centers, Upper Peninsula Health System-Portage, and Baraga County Memorial Hospital) the project will integrate telehealth technology into primary care clinics to increase access and availability of retinopathy screenings for diabetic patients in the region.

Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is the leading cause of blindness among working-age adults in the United States.  More than 40% of diabetics, aged 40 and older, have DR, many with a vision threatening form of the disease.  Early detection and treatment of DR can significantly reduce vision loss.  Although annual retinal screens for diabetic patients are recommended, the rate of diabetics in the UP who are getting their screens every year is below national benchmarks (as low as 23% in some populations).  Many factors have been identified as contributing to these low rates, but the simplest explanation is that DR often has no symptoms until it is too late to treat and the shortage of eye care professionals in the region makes appointments inconvenient for patients.

The goal of the UPHCS DR Screening Telehealth project is to reduce the incidence of vision impairment from DR and other vision threatening illnesses among diabetics by reaching them in primary care clinics. Funding will be used to purchase digital retinal cameras and train staff in primary care clinics to acquire high-resolution digital retinal images from patients. Staff will then securely transmit relevant clinical data and images, for review by an off-site eye care professional, through a secure third-party network. These remote specialists then provide a report indicating the patient’s retinopathy level and make referral recommendations.  Additionally, because it is not enough to simply identify patients with vision-threatening retinopathy, funds will be used to coordinate care and train local eye care specialists to screen the images so that they can take part in the process and help direct appropriate follow-up care for their patients in their communities. Primary care clinics benefit because the service is simple, inexpensive, and billable to most insurances.  Eye care professionals benefit because they can conduct screens at their own convenience and bill insurances for the service.  Most importantly, Patients benefit because they are more likely to get their annual DR screening and less likely to suffer vision impairment as a result.