The Rise of Teleophthalmology

Mar 22, 2021 8:00 AM

As the COVID-19 pandemic prompted new concerns for doctors and their patients, Moran’s ophthalmologists found ways to adapt.

telehealth illustration

Few medical exams require patients and doctors to sit face-to-face, inches apart, for a period of time. But it’s an everyday scenario when it comes to ophthalmology.

The COVID-19 pandemic, necessitating physical distancing and personal protective equipment, required John A. Moran Eye Center physicians and their colleagues across the country to innovate and accelerate the use of telehealth.

Before 2020, teleophthalmology visits were mainly used for connecting eye centers with rural communities or in areas around the world, allowing specialists to help local physicians assess a patient’s condition.

While the technology doesn’t lend itself to such things as examining peripheral vision or checking eye pressure, it has proven effective for specialties diagnosing apparent conditions such as droopy eyelids.

At Moran, telehealth efforts have taken various forms depending on circumstance.
Kathleen B. Digre, MD, performs a video call with a patient from her office.
Kathleen B. Digre, MD, performs a video call with a patient from her office.

Adapting to Teleophthalmology

Kathleen B. Digre, MD, is a nationally renowned specialist in neuro-ophthalmology. In her words, she’s also “of a certain age.” So when COVID-19 changed the landscape of health care in

March 2020, she had to pivot, almost overnight, to keep up with patients’ needs while keeping herself and her patients safe.

“My family was worried about exposure—to the point where they suggested I retire rather than keep working. I got it, but I have too much more to do,” she said. “I’ve adapted.”

From her office at Moran, she monitors an iPad while fellows and residents mask up and evaluate patients in the clinic. They then present their findings to Digre—often accompanied by visual test results—via a secured video call. If she needs to examine eye movements or pupils or evaluate visual field tests or photos, she can do so virtually.

As much as the system is working, Digre admits she would much rather be in the room with her patients.

“There have been and will be times when I do absolutely need to see a patient in person,” she said. “In that case, I put on full protective gear with a mask and face shield.”

Telehealth trend chart
Telehealth Trend: When pandemic restrictions in March 2020 temporarily halted in-person visits except for urgent conditions, Moran ramped up telehealth services for patients. At the height of the shutdown, video and telephone appointments represented 15% of clinical visits, more than 100 visits per week. Now, 50% of Moran providers offer telehealth options.

The Patient Experience

Linda Bliss is retired and divides her time between Arizona and Wisconsin. For the past five years, she has experienced periodic episodes of light sensitivity and the sensation of “seeing a square box” in the middle of her vision. She consulted with several clinics in both of her home states but couldn’t find a doctor who understood her symptoms. Taking her search online, she found a video of Digre describing her exact symptoms and called Moran right away.

Bliss said she felt “completely comfortable” with a virtual visit.

“She sent me an eye exam sheet in advance,” explained Bliss. “Then, when we were online, she had me do some eye movements, asked some questions, and told me exactly what was going on. It turns out what I was experiencing was an aura called a ‘cortical spreading depression,’ sort of like having a migraine, but without the headache. My experience with Dr. Digre was every bit as good as meeting her in person.”

Oculoplastic Consults Thriving

Although virtual consultations were new for Douglas P. Marx, MD, Moran’s division chief of oculoplastic and reconstructive surgery quickly embraced them.

“As soon as things shut down in March, I felt vulnerable because I knew so many of my patients were vulnerable,” said Marx. “The need was huge, and I didn’t want to leave anyone without help.”

Because almost everything Marx treats—from tear duct infections to orbital fractures and other traumas—starts with an external, visual assessment, he used virtual visits with ease, relying on them as an excellent screening tool. Marx was then able to view scans remotely to form treatment plans.

“We kept a lot of people from coming to a place where they could possibly be exposed to other people and found that most of the time they didn’t need an in-person visit,” said Marx. “The patient satisfaction level for these visits ranks consistently high. I think it’s the future of medicine. I’m still doing a couple of telehealth visits a day.”

vision telehealth patient care