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The Future of Eye Care: Could Artificial Intelligence Replace Your Optometrist?

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The beauty of technology is that it literally never stops changing. It seems that with every year, technological innovation alters every facet of life in one way or another. Whether it’s through the use of devices to control the lights, music, and thermostat settings in our homes, or the environmentally-friendly and futuristic self-driving electric cars, artificial intelligence and machine learning continue to change the world we live in.
Medicine is not only affected by this ongoing evolution; it’s often at the forefront of it. The technology and software used to practice eye care have changed significantly, even since I started practicing. And with the latest applications of artificial intelligence in the real world, it begs the question: will artificial intelligence replace optometrists in the future?

How Technology Helps Optometrists Today

Optometrists rely heavily on technology to help us evaluate eye health, diagnose eye issues, and determine the most accurate prescription. Some of the older technology practices use to accomplish these things are based on relatively rudimentary systems, employing the use of light and magnification. 
More recent and advanced equipment achieves the same goals digitally with a higher degree of clarity and precision. In some cases, this technology even gathers results and takes notes for us, ensuring our patients’ files are 100% accurate and up-to-date.
And while these more recent pieces of technology are impressive, they barely scratch the surface of what is currently available.

Artificial Intelligence in Eye Care

Artificial intelligence sounds like something out of a science-fiction film, or at least, something from the future. In truth, scientists are already exploring how we can use AI in modern optometry and ophthalmic practices. 
For example, one team of doctors have developed an algorithm to automatically detect diabetic retinopathy, which is one of the leading causes of vision loss around the world. This program can essentially assess photographs of the retina and determine which patients should see an eye surgeon for further evaluation or preventative treatment.
Researchers have found this algorithm to be remarkably accurate, and think it could play a huge role in significantly reducing cases of blindness due to diabetic retinopathy.

What We Can Expect Within the Next 20 Years

This program that detects diabetic retinopathy could theoretically be used to find other conditions and diseases affecting the retina. While these variations don’t necessarily exist yet, the theory would be roughly the same, and there’s no real reason to believe that the same technology couldn’t be applied to age-related macular degeneration or other retinal issues. 
Beyond just diagnosing these issues, artificial intelligence could give an added level of clarity as to how soon treatment will be required. In fact, according to an article in the Optometry times, AI will likely impact every area of the eye care industry. Experts predict that, through AI integration, patients can expect shorter wait times, more proactive care, and more efficient treatment plans. 

There is also some possibility that through technology, patients and may be able to conduct basic eye exams at home. Some practices and eyewear retailers already offer online vision screening tests. The Canadian Association of Optometrists has publicly stated that they are concerned about these “home eye exams” because they really only provide basic vision screening, and don’t do anything to evaluate the physical health of the eye.
While these tests are currently somewhat rudimentary, it is possible that through high-quality cameras and software using machine learning and artificial intelligence, patients may someday be able to use advanced technology to properly evaluate their eye health at home. 
Let’s assume, for a moment, that all of this technology eventually becomes common and accessible to Canadians. Will optometrists become obsolete? Given that Canada is experiencing a shortage of optometrists and ophthalmologists, would this change even be a negative thing? 
The reality is, even with the advent of artificial intelligence and machine learning in eye care, optometry and ophthalmology will require some level of human interaction.

The Human Factor

At this point, artificial intelligence doesn’t have the capacity for two major human elements. The first is understanding the importance of exceptions to rules and patterns. 
The truth is that we don’t know everything there is to know about the human body. For example, doctors don’t exactly know what causes normal-tension glaucoma. We just know that it results in vision loss. There are always anomalies in medicine, and in order to account for those, a medical practitioner needs the human ability to look outside of what previous patterns have taught them, and search for possible alternative answers.
The second major human element is simple humanity. 
Any medical field requires a personal connection to deliver good news, difficult news, or even just to reassure the patient. This is called bedside manner, and it’s largely based on our ability to relate to what other people’s feelings based on our own life experiences.
There may come a time that artificial intelligence can replicate the human factor, at which point, human eye care professionals may become obsolete. But for the foreseeable future, human eye doctors are an important part of making sure patients truly get the most from their vision. 
A great optometrist or ophthalmologist will not be threatened by the advancements in eye care technology. Instead, they will embrace innovation and use artificial intelligence to provide the absolute best standard of care for their patients.

Written by Dr. Kevin Hesterman

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