Digital imaging may help fend off blindness

August 5, 2002

People at risk of losing their eyesight due to diabetic retinopathy can benefit from a leading-edge medical imaging network established at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Physicians in remote clinics may not be able to detect early signs of

People at risk of losing their eyesight due to diabetic retinopathy can benefit from a leading-edge medical imaging network established at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Physicians in remote clinics may not be able to detect early signs of diabetes-induced blindness. Digital networking allows them to transmit images of patients' retinas to experts at the Vanderbilt Ophthalmic Imaging Center (VOIC) in Nashville. There, specialists can examine the images for abnormalities that could result in permanent eye damage.

"Every day in the U.S., 50 people go blind from diabetes because they didn't obtain the proper care," said Dr. Lawrence Merin, director of VOIC.

Annual examinations of the retina are vital to preventing blindness in diabetes patients, but this standard of care is not available to every diabetic patient, he said. The new networking technology enables doctors in outlying clinics to take detailed, high-resolution images of their patients' retinas and use a high-speed DSL or frame relay data connection to send the digital images directly to the VOIC.

The network is one of the first in the nation to combine information technology, retinal photography, digital imaging, and telemedicine for the detection of retinopathy in a primary care setting. The project is further evidence that ophthalmology is moving to join radiology, cardiology, and orthopedics in the digital world. Last year, for instance, Agfa announced a PACS-ophthalmology solution that digitizes the retinal, or fundus, cameras used as diagnostic tools by ophthalmologists.

Prior to introduction of the PACS-ophthalmology modality, retinal images could be captured only on 35-mm film, which involved darkrooms, chemicals, cutting and snipping, and reading cards distributed by hand or mail. With the new PACS solutions, images can also be digitized, providing ophthalmologists with the same image transmission, viewing, and storage benefits available to PACS users.

The VOIC brings remote specialists into the loop. Vanderbilt has already deployed high-speed data and imaging technology in the Cayce Clinic and the Mathew Walker Comprehensive Health Center in Nashville. It plans to expand the technology to numerous other clinics once endorsement by the insurance industry is obtained.