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Eye care transformed by AI

Medical productsAI

Smart machines are speeding up diagnosis and boosting independence for visually impaired people.


Ageing populations are increasing the workload of in-demand medical professionals, especially in optometry.

Artificial intelligence and telemedicine are stepping into the breach, participants at a symposium during the HKTDC Hong Kong International Optical Fair learned.

The fair drew 700 exhibitors from 11 countries and region, many of whom were offering smart glasses and related technologies.

Smart eyewear was also the focal point at the symposium.

Professionals from Australia, Hong Kong, Mainland China, the UK and US, discussed AI and tele-optometry developments at the Hong Kong International Optometric Symposium, which ran concurrently to the fair. They examined how technology could open the eyes of the visually impaired and reduce staffing pressure on primary healthcare.

“This is an exciting time, as many technologies suited for the visually impaired can now be accessed through apps,” said Dr Patrick D Yoshinaga of the Marshall B Ketchum University.

Several AI-powered smartphone apps can identify objects after being trained through exposure to a large set of images. Users simply point their smartphone camera at an object or text and hear an audio description.

Using Microsoft’s Seeing AI as an example, Dr Yoshinaga pointed out that, six years ago, users would have had to wait several seconds for a response. He recalled that a blind working mother could use the app to read documents and find meeting locations at work, while helping her daughter choose matching colours at home. She could even turn off the lights in her daughter’s room after learning how bright it was.

Visually impaired people can now wear AI glasses equipped with the GPT-4 language model and converse with them, reading menu contents, for example. A user can even ask to hear the vegetarian options.

Prof Mingguang He of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University collaborated with universities in Hong Kong and healthcare technology companies to investigate AI use in eye-disease diagnosis as well as how this technology could be implemented in the community.

His research in 2018 found that AI had a 90% or higher accuracy rate in detecting common eye diseases, such as diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration. The research led to development of a simple AI system, which was installed in GP clinics in Hong Kong. Following an eye examination, images of the retina were automatically transferred to the AI system for analysis, and the system could produce a report in two to three minutes. 

Prof He designed the system to work without requiring an internet connection, after considering resources available at clinics. His team created a simplified version for self-administered tests, which could be bought for as little as HK$10,000. He also is planning a Hong Kong Smart Clinic Project, which is expected to benefit more than 200,000 grassroots citizens. 

Prof Benny Chung-ying Zee of The Chinese University of Hong Kong Jockey Club School of Public Health and Primary Care explained that AI applications can predict risk of strokes  by analysing retinal images, allowing early intervention to improve lifestyle habits. This approach could also reduce the long-term burden that eye examinations would place on the healthcare system. 

Early diagnosis is critical, Dr Priya Morjaria of Peek Vision says

Dr Priya Morjaria of Peek Vision, a social enterprise in the United Kingdom that specialises in eye care, told the symposium that 90% of vision-loss cases could be avoided, if individuals received timely examination and assistance.

Her social enterprise provides eye health screening software to help countries bridge eye-care service gaps. The system screens for eye conditions, followed by case triage, eyeglass prescriptions and even surgical intervention. All of this was documented in the system, lowering the possibility of patients in need of care not being followed up.

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