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Busy eye doctors are getting a break. So are people who want to protect their vision from diabetes complications.

For the first time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved software that uses artificial intelligence to detect diabetic retinopathy, an eye disease that is common in people with diabetes. The new device works without any involvement from an eye care professional.

It promises to be an efficient and accurate way to provide eye care to more people in more places than ever before.

Understanding diabetic retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy results from chronically high blood sugar levels that damage tiny blood vessels in the retina. It strikes people with all types of diabetes. Over time, diabetic retinopathy may cause severe vision loss and blindness—and the damage is often irreversible.

The risk of developing diabetic retinopathy increases the longer you have diabetes. According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), about 40 to 45 percent of Americans with diabetes have diabetic retinopathy. Many don’t know it because the disease develops slowly and usually has no symptoms at first. Early detection and treatment are essential for preventing blindness, so the NEI says everyone with diabetes should have a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year.

But that’s not happening. “Many patients with diabetes are not adequately screened for diabetic retinopathy since about 50 percent of them do not see their eye doctor on a yearly basis,” said Malvina Eydelman, MD, director of the Division of Ophthalmic and Ear, Nose, and Throat Devices at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, in a news release.

Overcoming the problems

Why do so many people with diabetes skip regular eye exams? Some may not want to bother with seeing an eye specialist when their eyes seem fine. Others may live in areas where there aren’t enough eye care professionals. The new device solves both problems. With a little training, your primary care doctor can learn to use it. So can other healthcare providers who don’t specialize in eye care. You can be screened for diabetic retinopathy during an appointment at your regular doctor’s office.

How the device works

Diabetic retinopathy may progress through four stages. The first one, in the earliest stage of the disease, is called “mild.” The new device is designed to detect only more advanced stages than that.

First, a healthcare provider takes pictures of the eye with a special retinal camera. Those images are uploaded to a cloud server, where a software program called IDx-DR uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to analyze them.

The software tells the physician whether or not “more than mild” diabetic retinopathy has been found. If the answer is yes, it says the patient should see an eye care professional right away for further evaluation and possible treatment. If IDx-DR does not find more than mild diabetic retinopathy, it recommends rescreening in 12 months.

How well does the software work? In an FDA review of data on 900 people with diabetes, IDx-DR correctly detected positive results 87.4 percent of the time and negative results 89.5 percent of the time. That’s better than human eye doctors did in another study.

The software can be an important tool for screening people more often and finding diabetic retinopathy sooner when it may be easier to treat. But it’s important to remember that diabetic retinopathy is only one of many possible eye problems. The new software should not take the place of regular dilated eye exams by a qualified eye care professional.

Preventing diabetic retinopathy

Doing your best to manage your blood sugar levels is the best way to reduce your risk of diabetic retinopathy. That includes eating a well-balanced, diabetes-friendly diet, getting regular exercise, taking insulin or other diabetes medicines if directed by your doctor, and testing your blood sugar levels as often as needed.

Reducing heart disease risk factors can help to lower your diabetic retinopathy risk even more. Don’t smoke, and keep your blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels.

We’re lucky to live in a time when we’re learning so much about avoiding and treating diabetic retinopathy. Taking simple steps now can help you preserve your precious eyesight for a lifetime.

Have you been diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy? Share your experience with our community by adding a comment below.