Clinics in 9 Appalachian counties will offer high-tech eye screenings to head off common ailment that blinds diabetics

Kentucky has one of the nation’s highest rates of diabetes, but half the diabetics in rural Kentucky don’t have annual eye exams – even though nearly 30 percent of diabetics over 40 have diabetic retinopathy, the leading cause of blindness among diabetic adults.

To stem that threat, units of the University of Kentucky are using a three-year federal grant to bring diabetic eye screening to diabetics in nine Kentucky Appalachian counties. Diabetic retinopathy can be treated, or avoided altogether, if the disease is detected early enough.

While studies have found that 90 percent of diabetics consult their doctor about their disease, about half the diabetics in rural Kentucky do not have annual eye exams. The grant will make technologically advanced exams available at clinics in Bath, Carter, Elliott, Estill, Jackson, Madison, Menifee, Rockcastle and Rowan counties, sending digital images of the eyes to UK’s Department of Ophthalmology.

The specialists will screen the images for cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and other retinal abnormalities that can lead to vision loss and blindness. They will also enter the results into the patient’s electronic medical record, for reference by other health-care providers. Currently, only a fraction of the results of community-based eye exams are imported into such records.

The partnership between the UK ophthalmologists, the university’s Kentucky TeleCare, and primary care centers where the screenings will be done, is called the Appalachian Eye Network. It will reach nine counties with a combined population of 206,000. All the counties have diabetes rates higher than the national average. The project is expected to screen 4,860 people over the three-year term of the grant.

“Our goal is to reach patients with diabetes and those with high risk factors for diabetes who do not get annual eye exams and help uncover potentially devastating eye disease so it can be treated before the patient loses their vision,” said Rob Sprang, director of Kentucky TeleCare. “I believe we have the opportunity to save people’s vision and change lives.”

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