Michael was clearly frightened. He said he’d seen a flash of light and the next thing he knew a dark curtain had come across his vision. Two hours later, he’d been sent from the emergency room to me – a trainee eye surgeon – and I was straining to get a good view of his retina to diagnose the problem. Seeing the disappointment and desperation on his face, I wished I had a way of sharing down the phone with my consultant what I had seen.
Three years later, I was working in Uganda. A young teacher called Abraham came to the eye clinic, having lost sight in his only seeing eye. Like Michael, he’d had the same symptoms of a flash then a dark curtain. This time, however, I was able to examine him and correctly diagnose a retinal detachment.
There was a painful difference, though. Michael had sight-restoring surgery the same week he was diagnosed. For Abraham, with his young family and teaching career ahead of him, we could do nothing. He’d come to us too late and we didn’t have the equipment to treat him.
Working in under-resourced health systems over the next few years, I came across the same type of story again and again – people with preventable eye health problems losing their vision because they simply couldn’t be connected with the treatments they needed. I was experiencing a growing sense of injustice and anger that these people were being left behind. Something had to change.
I’d been trying various ways to use my smartphone to take retinal photos. The idea of being able to create something that could have helped Abraham and the countless people like him was a constant inspiration. If a smartphone could be used by a non-specialist to take images of the retina for them to be assessed by a professional, it could radically speed up the time to diagnosis and treatment.
After several false starts and failures, I met an engineer in Scotland who managed to scan and 3D print the design I’d spent months on in less than 24 hours. Both brilliant and frustrating! A few weeks later, we had our first custom-made, prototype adapter ready. Cautious because of my previous experiences, I didn’t get my hopes up. However, three of the team I was working with in Kenya picked it up and got a retinal view on their first attempt. It wasn’t perfect, but it actually worked.
The aim wasn’t to get a perfect view of the retina that looked as good as a desktop retinal camera, but for non-specialists to capture a good enough image to make the decision of whether or not a patient needed to travel. In many of the areas we work in, travel is often no small feat; it can mean hours or days of walking and public transport, with no guarantee of help at the other side. Most people with good eyesight would find that difficult – imagine trying it with little or no vision.
After three years of product development, and with crowdfunding from 1500 wonderful people who supported our mission, we finally brought our smartphone ophthalmoscope, Peek Retina, to market in April 2017. We also developed an app, Peek Acuity, for delivering accurate vision tests anywhere. Now, we’re developing health intelligence systems that allow health providers to link the data generated by these two products and better understand the eye health needs of a region.
Our work to date has already helped nearly 200,000 people, but there is so much more to be done. A third of people worldwide don’t see clearly; 9 in 10 of them only need a simple pair of glasses. 36 million people worldwide are blind; 4 in 5 of them could have kept their sight with simple surgery or treatment. We won’t stop until the millions of people worldwide affected by vision loss are linked to appropriate treatment and support services.
Image courtesy of © Peek Vision
Profile photo courtesy of © Rolex Joan Bardeletti
Peek Retina is manufactured and sold by Peek Vision Ltd, which is 100% owned by The Peek Vision Foundation (registered charity number 1165960), which develops technology and health intelligence that empowers healthcare providers to connect with and deliver quality, sustainable eye and health care to all people.The Peek Vision Foundation is supported by the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust.