Did you skip your annual eye exam in 2020 because of the pandemic?

If you’re among the ones who cancelled an appointment with the eye doctor this year, you should plan on scheduling a new examination. And you won’t be the only one needing to catch up on their checkups.

A recent national study revealed that during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic, of all medical service lines, ophthalmology had the greatest loss of patient volume.

In an analysis of more than 2 million patient visits and encounters from 228 hospitals in 40 states, the study showed eye doctors lost 81 percent of patient volume (year-over-year) when compared to two-week volumes in March and April 2020 (versus the same period in 2019).

January, designated National Glaucoma Awareness Month, provides a perfect time to think about the importance of your next eye exam. Remember, a simple eye-chart test won’t do. To evaluate vision loss from this disease, both eyes need to be dilated so your ophthalmologist or optometrist may evaluate your eyes for lost vision and a myriad of other abnormalities.

Regular eye exams are recommended because certain eye diseases, such as glaucoma, can “sneak up” on unsuspecting adults. In fact, glaucoma’s ‘other’ name is the “the sneak thief of sight.”

Last year, glaucoma procedures actually dropped by 88 percent for inpatient and outpatient practices. But glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness.

More than 3 million people have glaucoma

More than 3 million people in the United States suffer from glaucoma and the number is expected to reach 4.2 million by 2030, the National Eye Institute said in a recent report. Experts say that half of these people do not yet realize they have the disease and that as much as 40 percent of a person’s vision may be lost without the person noticing their sight is failing.

“Glaucoma is a disease where the nerve cells that connect your eyeball to the brain degenerate over time. Glaucoma leads to optic nerve injury, neurodegeneration and, ultimately, vision loss,” Dr. Derek Welsbie, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University Wilmer Eye Institute, said in February in connection with a research project called “Catalyst for a Cure,” which sought a novel strategy to replace injured nerve cells and reconnect them to the brain.

“You have about a million of these nerve cells in each eye and as they’re lost, you lose vision as a patient. Now, everything we do is aimed at slowing that degeneration, but for those patients who have already lost nerve cells and who’ve already lost vision, there’s nothing that we have to offer.”

High risk groups

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Some people are at higher risk for glaucoma and should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam every two years [and every year, if they are diabetic].”

Glaucoma is more prevalent among African American and Latino populations. In fact, glaucoma is six to eight times more common in African Americans than Whites. Although the most common forms primarily affect middle-aged and elderly people, glaucoma can affect people of all ages.

Are you in one of these groups?

■       African Americans 40 years and older

■       All adults older than 60, especially Mexican Americans

■       People with a family history of glaucoma

■       People who have been diagnosed with diabetes

New findings suggest vision loss in people with glaucoma can be caused by an immune response to early exposure to bacteria, which can elevate eye pressure and trigger heat shock proteins, according to www.glaucoma.org.

How a patient sees glaucoma

“Be aware that a diagnosis of glaucoma can be a very frightening experience,” Dr. Ralph M. Sanchez said in an article for the Review of Ophthalmology in 2016 in which he shared his experiences as both a physician and a glaucoma patient.

“Essentially, you’re being told that you could lose your sight, which is many people’s greatest fear. The initial diagnosis is very unsettling and can be profoundly life-changing. I’ve had patients cry upon hearing the news, and I totally understand that reaction.”

Sanchez also tells his patients that glaucoma is unlikely to lead to blindness when treated appropriately, but it takes a lot of patient responsibility, too.  “Sometimes it’s the challenges we face in life that really make us who we are,” Sanchez wrote.

Sanchez, who is now in his 60s, was in his 20s when he received his diagnosis. “It may sound kind of crazy, but getting that diagnosis led me to change my career and make a serious life commitment, which I hadn’t been motivated to make until then,” he wrote. “So although I wouldn’t wish glaucoma on anybody, in some ways that diagnosis was a blessing in disguise.”

There still is no cure for glaucoma. However, there is hope that certain medications or surgery may slow or prevent further vision loss. Early detection is vital to stopping the progress of this disease.

So remember to have that eye exam as soon as you feel comfortable going back to the eye doctor.

 

Judi Kanne

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.