Series | Catalysts

Online eye exams will change the way we buy glasses

This online eye exam was banned before COVID-19. Now it’s helping people get glasses for a third of the price.
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Across the globe, shelter-in-place orders have made it impossible for many to receive eye care. While the optometry industry has been reluctant to explore new technologies in the past, many doctors are beginning to recognize the benefits of digital services, such as an online eye exam.

Estimates show that worldwide, nearly 2.5 billion people require eyeglasses but lack access to them. It’s an often overlooked health crisis despite the fact that it afflicts so many and can have disastrous consequences.

The difficulty of performing simple tasks like driving not only affects a person’s ability to live independently, but it has an impact on mental health, too. Vision impairment without treatment has been linked to an increase in depression, with rates up to 8% higher than those with adequate vision.

Both consumers and medical professionals are realizing that virtual vision care is an advancement the optometry field needs, and the coronavirus pandemic, while a devastating tragedy, is opening up new opportunities for innovation. 

Arguments Against Online Eye Exams 

Online eye exams were initially created as a practical and convenient solution to treating more patients. However, the optometry industry and its lobby went to extreme measures to block online eye exam providers, like Visibly, from entering the market.

Visibly and its investors believe that there is a moral imperative to make vision care more affordable and that can be done best using digital solutions.

How much does an eye exam cost? A typical, in-person visit to an optometrist’s office for an eye exam typically ranges from $120-$180. Visibly offers their online eye exam for about one-third of the cost of a traditional exam, with the added convenience of completing it from home.

But in 2019, pressure from optometry lobbyists led the FDA to require that Visibly remove its product from the market. Visibly consistently maintained that its product was not intended to replace the jobs of optometrists but rather to support them in reaching more patients, and doing so in a more affordable and practical manner.

The company stated on its website: “Visibly is not a replacement for a comprehensive eye health examination… Our licensed ophthalmologists and optometrists use Visibly’s online technology to evaluate a patient’s visual acuity and a portion of the ocular health profile and issue a prescription for corrective eyewear, where clinically appropriate.”

Optometrists aren’t easy to persuade, however. Dr. David Gibson, O.D. explains, “(Optometrists) have had to fight tooth and nail to get a lot of the privileges that we enjoy right now as far as treating patients and being able to see patients. Any type of innovation is treated with some suspicion just because it is something that infringes on those hard-fought wins.”

The Pandemic Creates a Path for Progress

Trying to gain footing in the industry while navigating through all the red tape, Visibly found themselves in a desperate situation. The business was on the brink of shutting down completely, but everything changed overnight when they found a very unexpected ally in the form of a pandemic.

As the coronavirus wreaked havoc all over the world, it also forced several industries to embrace progressive solutions. Social distancing and shelter-in-place orders made it impossible for doctors to connect with patients in-person, and this created a natural path for an online eye exam to enter the market.

Salen Churi describes, “You can’t go down the street to your local optometrist and get an eye exam like you used to be able to. So when you consider how you can possibly solve this problem, the only thing you come back with is that it’s got to be a digital solution.” Churi is the founder of Trust Ventures, which supports start-ups held back by public policy barriers.

“A year ago, Visibly’s biggest challenge was the American Optometric Association. It was the optometrists’ lobby saying they want to prevent this new technology from getting into the hands of consumers because it threatens their position in the market,” Churi continued.

Some optometrists now find themselves relying on the same service they spent years lobbying against. They’re beginning to realize how Visibly can help their business and become an ally rather than an adversary.

The FDA also recently took action in favor of Visibly’s online eye exam. It lifted the restrictions against Visibly and in doing so, has allowed them to help optometrists all over the U.S. reach patients. Visibly and Trust Ventures hope this progress extends beyond the pandemic and becomes a common practice in the industry moving forward.

Now, given the chance to see the practicality of an online platform, it’s possible that eye doctors will continue to embrace this new technology to increase access to affordable eye care.

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