Hamilton Visionaries Harness Technology For Better Eye Care

Innovative New System Scores Major Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research

(NC)-It should be a health-care crisis. Ophthalmologists are in short supply in urban centres, and often non-existent in smaller, rural communities. Many Canadians with diabetes living in these places - particularly First Nations people - face eye damage and potentially blindness if they don't get regular eye check-ups and, when required, fast treatment.

But, in many cases, the problem has been averted. And all it took was a visit to a local photographer.

The photographer in this case, though, has been specially trained to capture digital 3D images of the retina, which are then sent over the Internet to an ophthalmologist. "For assessing diabetics, having a good picture is as good as looking at the eye itself," says Dr. Matthew Tennant.

Tennant and Dr. Christopher Rudnisky, Assistant Professors at the University of Alberta, along with Dr. Mark Greve, Acting Chair of the Department of Ophthalmology, together run Secure Diagnostic Imaging, which they established back in 1989 to develop and introduce the technology. The company's slogan is "Improving Access to Eye Care for All", and it's for their efforts in doing just that that they've been awarded the Canadian Institutes of Health Research National Knowledge Translation Award for 2008.

Not only does their system improve access to eye care for rural Canadians, it also makes providing eye care more efficient. "The numbers tell the story," explains Tennant. "If you assess 100 people with diabetes, only 30 will have diabetic retinopathy, and just 10 will need laser treatment or surgery. Using our system saves patients unneeded travel, and saves ophthalmologists from seeing patients unnecessarily."

In Alberta, that's led to their system being used to assess some 3,000 patients each year. It's also been adopted by Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and the Northwest Territories, and is now being introduced in B.C. and Newfoundland.

In addition to a finely tuned system put together by programmers Chris Tennant and Jayson Eppler, also directors of the company, community involvement was critical to the success of this knowledge transfer story. "We linked in with family doctors, and got community people to garner local support," says Tennant. "One health representative who invited us into her community even drove people to their assessments in town."

"Being able to use this technology for the benefit of people in Canada is very rewarding," says Tennant, who adds that the team remains passionate about expanding its availability, both in Canada and internationally. "You become a doctor hopefully to be of service to other people, and it's fantastic to be able to use technology to help people you've never even met."

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is the Government of Canada's agency for health research. CIHR's mission is to create new scientific knowledge and to catalyze its translation into improved health, more effective health services and products, and a strengthened Canadian health-care system. Composed of 13 Institutes, CIHR provides leadership and support to more than 12,000 health researchers and trainees across Canada. For more information, visit www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca.

- News Canada

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