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University Hospital Taking NICU Ophthalmology To Rural Areas

Elizabeth Allen

University Hospital is participating in a study that doctors hope will save the eyesight of premature babies born in areas where ophthalmologists are in short supply.

The study looked at telemedicine exams used to diagnose retina problems associated with premature birth, or retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), a disease that in the past caused blindness among most premature victims.

A shortage of doctors to diagnose the disease means they had to figure out a way to examine babies born in rural areas. Dr. Alice Gong, professor of pediatrics at the UT Health Science Center, said non-specialized medical personnel had to learn to perform tricky eye exams – and on the tiniest of eyeballs.

“That to me, was the hardest thing: looking at little bitty eyes,” Gong said. “It was actually quite difficult to learn the procedure, and I’m a physician. I’m used to looking at eyeballs. So taking nurses, taking people who are technicians to learn to do this, there was a huge training process.”

Credit Elizabeth Allen / UTHSC
Nurses and medical technicians in rural communities use this type of imaging system to determine whether premature babies have damage to their eyes.

The study, funded by the National Eye Institute, provided for images of the babies’ eyes to be sent to an image reading center for evaluation. A comparison of the cases isolated for referral to an eye specialist was compared to the results from ophthalmologists, and the study found that the non-physicians were as successful in identifying the disease as the specialists.

Dr. Clio Harper, an Austin-area ophthalmologist who comes to San Antonio weekly to perform exams, said there’s a serious shortage of pediatric eye specialists.

“There are not enough of us to go around – pediatric retina specialists – to be able to treat all these babies even in the United States. So some type of screening program is imperative,” Harper said.

Each year, 14,000-16,000 premature babies are affected by some degree of ROP. About 10% of those need treatment.

Gong said the training of more personnel in rural areas could allow babies to remain in their closest hospital after treatment at a major facility. 

Eileen Pace is a veteran radio and print journalist with a long history of investigative and feature reporting in San Antonio and Houston, earning more than 50 awards for investigative reporting, documentaries, long-form series, features, sports stories, outstanding anchoring and best use of sound.