Growing telehealth program is working to catch blindness early

MAUSTON, Wis (WMTV) - A growing telemedicine program for eye care is working to catch early signs of blindness for those with diabetes.

The UW-Health program is giving patients in rural Juneau Co. access to screenings by partnering with Mile Bluff Medical Center in Mauston.

The lead on the project, Dr. Yao Liu, is a glaucoma specialist, eye surgeon and assistant professor at UW-Madison.

“I think there is so much new technology today. Telemedicine allows us to provide eye care using cameras, smart phones, all kinds of new technologies,” she said.

Experts said diabetic eye disease is the leading cause of blindness among working age adults in the U.S. Dr. Liu said treatment decreases the risk of severe vision loss from diabetic eye disease by 90 percent.

According to UW-Health, fewer than half of the 29.1 million Americans with diabetes receive yearly eye screenings, and it is especially a problem for those who live in rural areas.

“I’ve had lots of patients who have actually had improvements in their vision and have had disease detected that they didn’t know they had and have been brought into care and had they vision protected,” Dr. Liu said.

Diabetic patients can get a photo taken of their eye, which is electronically sent back to specialists to take a look. Dr. Liu said if they see any abnormalities in the photo, they partner with local doctors to get patients additional treatment.

One patient from Mauston, Jeff Fairchild, said he has battled diabetes for about 12 years, and said now that he has access, gets a scan yearly.

“I don’t want to lose my eyesight. It’s very important to me. And if we can catch the problem early we can keep that from happening,” he said.

Dr. Liu reported, since they started the program in 2015, they have screened almost 400 patients in Mauston and diabetic eye screenings have increased by 35 percent.

The chief medical officer at Mile Bluff Medical Center, Dr. Timothy Bjelland, said it has made a big difference.

"Of course we would like to have every patient screened, so we are not there yet, but our numbers have dramatically increased and, in my mind, that means less people will be blind from their diabetes in the future because the interventions and screenings,” he said.

Dr. Bjelland said Mile Bluff serves six counties, and they now have a camera at all five of their clinics.

Fairchild said there are a lot of complications that come along with having diabetes, and this is one less thing he has to worry about. He said his scans have been normal.

“It’s a cutting edge thing for us here in the rural area,” he said.

Dr. Liu said they are continuing to expand the program. She said there are now cameras at two different clinics in Madison. They are also partnering with health systems from all over the state, including Fort Atkinson in the fall.