Eye exams can be critical to disease diagnosis

April 12, 2012, 4:11 p.m.

Doctors say eye exams can help provide early indicators of dozens of systemic diseases. (Credit: Andy Logan/Flickr Creative Commons)

Eyes aren't just windows to the soul: Doctors say that routine eye exams can be key in diagnosing many systemic diseases. reports that dozens of diseases can show symptoms in the eye, including spondyloarthritis (a family of inflammatory rheumatic diseases), high blood pressure, certain cancers, diabetes, advanced hypertension and even heart disease.

Researchers, doctors and patients alike are hopeful that diagnosis-by-eye will help avoid more invasive diagnostic procedures.

This is nothing new, Marco Zarbin told ABC. Zarbin is the chief of ophthalmology at the University of Medicine, Dentistry, New Jersey, and said that this kind of diagnosis happens all the time.

"If you look at your brain, two-thirds of it is dedicated to some aspect of vision," he told the news outlet. "It's a big deal."

As such, doctors are emphasizing the importance of regular, consistent eye exams – something South L.A., with its lack of health care access in general, struggles with.

Nina Vaccaro, the executive director of the Southside Coalition for Community Health Clinics, told OnCentral that there is "some access" in the area to optometrists and "nowhere near enough" access to ophthalmologists.

Optometrists are generally who people will see at routine eye exams – they are medical professionals concerned with eye health, vision, visual systems and vision information processing. They fit lenses to improve vision and can diagnose and treat some diseases.

Ophthalmologists – besides having a title that's much more difficult to spell – are surgical and medical specialists who deal with the anatomy, physiology and diseases of the eye. They are trained to perform operations on the eye.

Vaccaro said that diabetics in particular need regular access to eye care – an eye exam at least once a year – since diabetes puts those with the disease at an "extreme risk" for going blind and having vision problems.

She said it was taking so long for some patients to get appointments with the county that the clinics in the Southside Coalition began using tele-medicine: They purchased retinal cameras, trained a medical assistant to use them, and then sent images of patients eyes to specialists elsewhere in the state. Those specialists would evaluate the photos and send feedback to the clinics, who'd relay it to the patient.

Now the clinics and the county have an arrangement where "high-risk patients" can get an appointment for treatment with the county much more quickly, she explained.

"It was taking so long for the patients to get their appointments that there were a couple cases where the patients actually lost their vision while waiting for an appointment," said Vaccaro.

While the information that eye exams can divulge in terms of diagnoses is valuable, and can be a critical precursor to timely preventative care, "there are just not enough specialists," said Vaccaro.

"But that's what you do," she added. "You develop workarounds if there aren't enough specialists."

Photo by Andy Logan via Flickr Creative Commons.

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