Premature babies suffering from Retinopathy of Prematurity may be helped by telemedicine, according to a group of researchers that conducted a national study to assess whether this potentially blinding disease could be correctly identified from a distance.
According to one of the team members, Dr. Alice Gong, neonatologist and professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, the study can help patients and hospitals overcome the short supply of pediatric ophthalmologists capable of doing ROP exams across the country. “We don’t have enough specialists trained to do these exams, and most premature babies need an exam,” said Dr. Gong.
The lack of trained ophthalmologists is a common reality nearly everywhere in the U.S., and not only in rural areas.
The study was funded by the National Eye Institute (NEI) and consisted of an analysis of images of babies’ eyes electronically sent to an image reading center, where they were evaluated and classified as needing or not needing to be seen by a specialist. These decisions were also compared to the conclusions of ophthalmologists who examined the babies at the hospitals.
According to the information available in UT Health Science Center’s page, the study found that non-physicians and physicians had similar results in their evaluation of the sent photos.
Researchers wanted to understand whether a baby could be diagnosed and treated from a long distance as their disease progressed in order to be able to keep them in their NICU, close to their homes and families, but with the guarantee they received the treatment they need, something researchers now believe to be possible with telemedicine.
“A lot of premature babies have ROP, but only ten percent need treatment. With this technology we can make sure they get the treatment they need,” Dr. Gong said.
ROP is a potentially blinding disease, common in the most fragile premature babies and in which the blood vessels in the back of the eye grow abnormally and may cause retina detachment. To prevent serious damage, early diagnosis and treatment are crucial.