A Smartphone-Connected Device for Diagnosing Diabetic Retinopathy

People with type 1 diabetes (T1D) have an increased risk of experiencing certain long-term health problems when their blood sugar levels are imbalanced. Chronic hyperglycemia, for instance, can lead to damage to small blood vessels, including diabetic retinopathy, a condition affecting small blood vessels in the eyes. Diabetic retinopathy affects approximately 20% of Canadians with type 1 diabetes. When diagnosed too late or when left untreated, this condition can unfortunately lead to partial vision loss, or even complete vision loss in some rare cases.

To prevent retinopathy, individuals with T1D should strive to balance their blood sugar levels and get regular check-ups from an ophthalmologist or optometrist. However, people with diabetes don’t always have easy access to these professionals (remote location, long waiting lists, marginalization, etc.). Several diabetes and eye care specialists wondered how low-cost screening could be made more widely available. 

A device accurate enough to make a diagnosis?

A research team tested a device that could be connected to a smartphone and make it easier to diagnose diabetic retinopathy. This device has a special magnifying glass that is placed about 20 cm away from the phone and aligned with the camera.

One of the issues with pictures taken with smartphones for medical diagnostic purposes is that the image quality they provide can vary. The challenge is even more significant when a diagnosis is based on subtle criteria, like in the case of diabetic retinopathy. The main goal of the study was to test whether the image quality provided by the device was good enough to make a diagnosis.

The results are promising: the device could detect eye damage, even minimal, in 80% of cases, and 100% of severe damage cases.

This device could be a major milestone for screening a major diabetes-related complication. The researchers confirmed that any health professional with basic training could learn to use the device. Screening could easily be done during a medical appointment, and only patients requiring a more specific assessment or procedure would be referred to an ophthalmologist. 

The BETTER project aims to increase access to new technologies and therapies in Quebec. 

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