Sunday, July 21, 2024

Seeking greater eye care treatment for all


Those who live in rural communities often have more limited access to healthcare specialists and are sometimes forced to travel to places hours away for treatment.

With the goal of helping offer specialized services to a greater number of people – especially those who reside in small towns. Austin area ophthalmologist Lisa McIntyre is partnering with Coryell Health on a project that could spread throughout the country – and around the world.

Jeff Bates, chief medical officer with Coryell Health, said the Gatesville hospital and its clinics in Moody and Goldthwaite were limited in being able to refer patients to other locations during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. That led to rural hospitals banding together to help resolve those concerns.

Coryell Health is making strong efforts to provide local residents with a variety of specialized services, including eye care. This has led to the collaboration with McIntyre, who shares the same goals.

"You start with a vision, and we have a really great hospital in rural Texas where we do surgeries," Bates said. "The concept was, you have a regular eye doctor – what if you have access to a retina specialist and didn't have to drive to Austin?"

Those who have diabetes face a number of increased health concerns because of the damage the disease does to small nerves, which can affect the feet, heart, kidneys and eyes. If there's one area of the treatment that is most often neglected, it is eye care, Bates said.

"Those with diabetes need an eye exam every year so they don't go blind," he said. "Sometimes people forget about that eye exam. If I've got access to telemedicine, it is much easier to get those eye tests done. That sounds like a great project. I was thinking Gatesville could be the home of the project."

Linking up Coryell Health's mission with McIntyre's vision was a natural fit, Bates said.

"Dr. McIntyre has a heart for this project – she wants everyone in the world to be able to see," he said.

McIntyre said being able to offer eye care to those who are traditionally underserved – or not served at all "is a passion."

She has taken mission trips to Mexico to offer those services, but said she realized those services are needed here in America, too.

"I do mission eye care in Mexico, and it is an amazing, fulfilling way to bring people into the world of seeing," McIntyre said. "It reminds us of why we do what we do and why we love it so much.

"During 2020, I researched where ophthalmologists are and aren't. There's a huge paucity (scarcity) of ophthalmologists in the center of America – 60 million people in my own country don't have access to the eye care they need."

She said she began to explore the possibility of being able to offer remote services. People can visit a local clinic but then connect with an ophthalmologist via the internet.

"Once the images are uploaded, it doesn't matter if I'm across the hall, across the country or across the world," McIntyre said.

She talked to a doctor at a clinic in Argentina. where the economy collapsed a decade ago, and learned that ophthalmologists set up a network via dial-up internet to treat patients. She sees an opportunity for even faster internet in America to be able to reach those who might otherwise not get the treatment they need.

"What I'd like to see happen is to use some of those tools (telemedicine) to reach people who aren't getting the help they need," McIntyre said. "We can do it more efficiently and cheaper and can have all the subspecialists available to the patient at any time."

She said poor vision not only has an impact on patients and their loved ones but also impacts communities. She said many people do not get the treatment they need because it's inconvenient and requires traveling.

For example, those who need a cataract surgery but do not get it can lose the equivalent of $121,000 over 13 years, McIntyre said.

"You spread that over a community and it's significant – the impact is exponential," she said. "It's also a burden on the healthcare system if someone is not able to take care of themself. If people can get their healthcare locally, it also keeps the money in the community."

As part of the treatment process, patients can use local equipment and then link up to a specialist via a video conference.

Potential vision loss is a serious concern, McIntyre said, so patients should take care of any eye concerns sooner, rather than later.

"There's a point where it (vision loss) gets so dense that surgery becomes more complicated, and we don't want the patient to let it get that far," she said.

With telemedicine, McIntyre and Coryell Health are hoping to make a lack of access to specialized eye care a thing of the past.