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The ADA’s Focus on Diabetes Initiative Took A Closer Look at Eye Health

By Kira Wang and Jamie Kurtzig

Advice from ophthalmologists, optometrists, endocrinologists, and people with diabetes-related eye disease on getting comprehensive eye exams. “The bottom-line is yearly eye exams prevent blindness,” said Dr. Robert Gabbay, the ADA’s Chief Scientific & Medical Officer

To raise awareness about diabetes eye-related disease, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) led a virtual event on eye health. The initiative, called Focus on Diabetes, was launched as part of the ADA’s public health campaign to improve early and consistent treatment for people with diabetes.   

Focus on Diabetes had three goals:

  • To raise awareness about diabetes-related eye disease

  • To increase education and support for people with diabetes

  • To educate healthcare professionals about diabetes-related eye disease and prevention

The event featured a panel of optometrists, ophthalmologists, endocrinologists, ADA leaders, and people with diabetes-related eye disease. Read on for their key lessons on eye health.

The Importance of the Comprehensive Eye Exam

“The in-person comprehensive eye exam is the gold standard in healthcare to reduce the negative effects of sight threatening disease and to improve overall health,” said Dr. Lori Grover, an optometrist on the American Optometric Association’s Board of Trustees. Aside from identifying eye disease, comprehensive eye exams can identify over 270 conditions, including diabetes, that people do not even know they have. 

Getting exams early can often help identify and treat diseases before they progress to vision loss. Dr. Raj Maturi, an ophthalmologist from the American Society of Retina Specialists, reinforced that an annual, comprehensive eye exam is an important first step: “We are visual beings. Each of us needs that vision to live, to survive, to function, to see, to be effective. Saving that is precious, and [a comprehensive eye exam] is a simple way to have that happen.” 

Cost can be a barrier to eye exams, but Dr. Maturi recommended people with diabetes look into resources like Eye Care America. Read about more resources for affordable eye care in our article “Resources for Eye Care, Exams, and Glasses: How to See More and Pay Less.”

Ophthalmologists versus Optometrists: What’s the Difference? 

The panelists outlined the differences between ophthalmologists and optometrists. Dr. Maturi explained that ophthalmologists are medical physicians who specialize in areas such as glaucoma or retina. Ophthalmologists treat all eye diseases and injuries: they can prescribe glasses, contact lenses, and all medications, and they can perform surgery. If you have a diabetes-related eye disease, you’ll typically see a general ophthalmologist or a retina specialist for treatment and management. 

Dr. Grover explained that optometrists are not medical doctors, but can conduct vision tests and diagnose, treat, and manage changes in vision. Optometrists can prescribe glasses, contact lenses and certain medications for select eye conditions. The full scope of what optometrists can do medically and surgically varies by state.

The ADA recommends that people with diabetes receive a comprehensive eye exam from either an ophthalmologist or an optometrist. You might consider talking to both an ophthalmologist and an optometrist to assess which specialist will best meet your eye care needs. If you are in the US, click to find an ophthalmologist or an optometrist near you.

COVID-19, Diabetes Management, and Eye Health

While the COVID-19 pandemic has posed challenges, it is more important than ever to receive proper eye care. Tracey Brown, CEO of the ADA, said that “people may think that eye care doesn't need to be a priority during the pandemic, but in fact, it absolutely needs to be a priority. So much is connected to an eye exam, and eyes are a window into chronic condition. So, it's more important than ever to make sure your eye specialist is part of your diabetes care team during this time when it may be difficult to get access to other care.” 

Eye care is still accessible and critical during COVID-19, and ignoring or postponing care may have consequences for your vision later – learn more about this here.

Stories from People with Diabetes-Related Eye Disease

The panel wrapped up with personal stories about eye health from people with diabetes . While it is difficult to imagine what life with eye disease and vision loss is like, these three Focus on Diabetes ambassadors helped us gain a better understanding. 

Patricia, a Pilates instructor and personal trainer, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a teenager: “In my forties, I started to experience retinal issues. In my third [eye] surgery, I had a stroke and went into a coma; when I woke up I’d lost my left eye. I had a prosthetic eye made. I know that type 1 diabetes has stolen my vision, but I’m here and want to raise awareness about the important measures people can take to preserve their eyesight.” Six months after losing her eye, Patricia ran a marathon, resumed her Pilates classes, and has been thriving ever since.

  • Patricia’s advice for people with diabetes? “Be sure you get your annual eye checks, stay in tune with your body, monitor your blood sugar, and please exercise.”

Roger, who has had type 2 diabetes for a year, explained the importance of listening to your body and taking early action: “I had prediabetes but ignored every sign. I chose to do nothing about it and didn’t get eye exams, and I’m living today with the complications of that.” 

Natalie has had type 1 diabetes for thirty years and was recently diagnosed with diabetes-related retinopathy: “I first noticed diabetes-related retinopathy in my eye a few years ago. It was very minor, no vision issues, and there wasn’t anything for me to do. I didn’t understand it. That all changed this past November – I woke up one day and couldn’t see properly out of my right eye...I quickly realized it was serious and scheduled an emergency eye appointment. Eye appointments have always given me a lot of anxiety, but I knew I had to go.” 

  • After she was diagnosed with diabetes-related retinopathy, Natalie had to receive eye injections as part of her treatment: “I’ve been getting eye injections, first once a month and now every other month…Getting the vision back was slow at first, and frustrating, but has gradually gotten better. I’m very optimistic and grateful for the improvements in eye health. I was very scared about eye injections – I’m very used to insulin injections – but there are a lot of numbing drops, and it’s not a long procedure.” 

  • For people who have recently been diagnosed with diabetes-related retinopathy, Natalie offered a valuable perspective: “You’re definitely not alone in eye injections. I met so many people after becoming open about it. You can have eye injections and still live a very fulfilled life.” 

To learn more about Focus on Diabetes and eye health, watch the full event and join the quickly growing Facebook community. For more information on eyes, check out our series of articles written for Healthy Vision Month! 

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