Eye Exams first to detect chronic diseases – the benefits of eyecare insurance

This was a challenging week in the clinic. One patients came in for their routine eye exams and, although he did not need glasses, he was diagnosed with diabetes. Although this patient was upset, the blessing was that we were able to give him a very early diagnosis.

This reminds us of a study released in 2011 that confirmed that eye exams by an optometrist or ophthalmologist are often the first to detect chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension. The researchers found that eye doctors detected signs of certain chronic conditions before any other health care provider recorded the condition—65 percent of the time for high cholesterol, 20 percent of the time for diabetes, and 30 percent of the time for hypertension.

The study has important implications for the heath care system as a whole, as we try to save money by focusing on prevention and early detection. Annual eye exams are critical in detecting signs of chronic diseases at the earliest stages because eye doctors have the only unobstructed, non-invasive view of the body’s blood vessels – which they observe through the eye in an eye examination.  

Predictably the research also showed that people with insurance coverage for eye exams are three times more likely get an annual eye exam than a routine eye exam.  It seems that providing employees – and citizens generally – insurance coverage for annual eye exams is an important step to promote wellness and to reduce health care costs in the long run.  Unfortunately, like many important parts of the Canadian health care system, eye exams are not covered except for children and seniors.

The researchers looked at the health records of 56 million members of a large vision insurance provider and after crunching the numbers concluded that billions of dollars were saved through early detection and treatment.  Here are the numbers:

  • 65 percent of the 2.2 million members with high cholesterol (1.5 million), resulting in two year savings of $1.7 billion
  • 20 percent of 1.5 million members with diabetes (296,800), resulting in two year savings of  $827 million
  • 30 percent of 2.2 million members with hypertension (667,800), resulting in two year savings of $2 billion

Vision insurance plans that cover annual eye exams are also a benefit to employers.  Employers who provided such plans experienced 7 percent less absenteeism, 4 percent less employee turnover and savings on insurance and workers’ compensation costs. Early detection of chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension also increased the likelihood employees would be proactive with their health care and more likely to see their family doctor to receive follow-up care.

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