Why eye exams are about way more than sight

Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development and Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits, asks whether eye exams might become a staple in UK benefit and wellbeing programmes, not only for testing sight but also for early detection of disease

They say that “eyes are the windows to the soul” but they are also windows through which some of the major chronic healthcare conditions of our time can be detected early.

Comprehensive eye examinations are being increasingly appreciated not just for assessing poor vision but also for their ability to spot the early signs of certain conditions, from strokes and heart disease to diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and brain tumours.

Signs of diabetes and hypertension can, for example, be spotted in the blood vessels of the retina, as can signs of high cholesterol; which can also be evident from colour changes around the cornea.1 2

The US knows it!

For well over a decade, US research has been demonstrating impressive return on investment figures realised by those companies that use eye examinations in their benefit and wellbeing programme to help detect these conditions, the prompt treatment of which can be crucial for securing a positive outcome.1

In fact, eye doctors in the US play a critical role in identifying and managing chronic conditions. This recognition of – and investment in – proactive and preventative healthcare benefits is no doubt driven by the fact that the healthcare system in the US is predominantly insurance-based. In short, prevention is crucial to keeping the medical trend rate under control.3

A shift from sight to self-preservation                              

The trend in the UK towards a preventative focus has been accelerated because of the pandemic. And if eye examinations can help in that regard, they’re arguably worth considering as part of a preventative tool in an employer’s wellbeing armoury, as opposed to a mandatory Duty of Care requirement, focused on testing eyesight, only.

In our recent eye health webinar, hosted by Generali UK Employee Benefits, in partnership with Best Doctors, Rowan Ross, Client Manager at Best Doctors by Teladoc Health, discussed such messages. He placed particular emphasis on diabetes, pointing out that over 4 million people in the UK are living with diabetes at present; 1 in every 16 people.4

Take diabetes, for example…

As well as helping to detect early signs of diabetes, eye exams can also help manage diabetic eye disease in those who have been diagnosed with the condition.

More than half of people with diabetes will develop diabetic retinopathy; the most common cause of vision loss in people with diabetes. Diabetics are advised to get a comprehensive dilated eye exam at least once a year. Diabetic retinopathy may not have any symptoms at first, but finding it early can help individuals take steps to protect vision.5

This represents just one in a group of eye problems that can affect people with diabetes. These include diabetic macular edema, cataracts, and glaucoma. The best ways to manage diabetes and keep eyes healthy are to: have a dilated eye exam once a year; quit smoking; and manage your blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol.6

It’s a mental health thing too

Of course, the value of routinely testing eyesight too, where all employees are concerned – not just those at risk of disease – shouldn’t be overlooked either.

The pandemic – and mass homeworking – has resulted in many routine optical appointments being postponed and in increased screentime due to more people working remotely.

Considering the time spent watching TV, gaming, and chatting to friends via social media, in addition to work, it’s probably safe to say that employees on the whole have spent more time than usual staring at a screen during the pandemic. Research shows that over four in 10 (42%) adults claim their eyesight has deteriorated since the start of the pandemic.7

There’s a mental health aspect to all this too, with the potential for increased screentime to lead to problems sleeping which, in turn, can result in a downward spiral, negatively impact diet, exercise and general health.

What does the law say?

It is a legal obligation for all employers in the UK whose employees use a screen for more than an hour a day to pay for eye-tests if the employee requests one. In addition, the Health & Safety Executive states that employers have a legal duty to protect employees from harm by completing risk assessments and acting on the findings.

For ‘long term’ homeworkers these risks include lone working without supervision, working with display screen equipment (DSE), stress, and mental health. Although the HSE falls short of defining what it means by the ‘long term’ it’s probably safe to say that most responsible employers are now risking assessing and extending things like eye tests to all those employees who are still home working since the start of the pandemic, as well as those individuals on site.8

A spot poll of HR and Line Manager attendees during our recent webinar found that although 75% provide eye examinations to all employees, only 50% have encouraged their people to take an examination during the last 18 months of the pandemic. And a focus on ongoing monitoring of health and early detection of disease only represented a core element in the wellbeing programme of just under a fifth of attendees (17%).*

An eye on the future

Meanwhile, it seems that the case for offering comprehensive eye examinations is being strengthened all the time, as a result of medical advances boosting their scope.

For example, scientists recently found that an eye test could provide an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease. Using a non-invasive technique to assess blood flow in every layer of the retina, researchers propose that a loss in the density of blood vessels in the retina could suggest the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies are ongoing.9

For now though, a word to the wise. It’s National Eye Health Week from 20 to 26 September; the perfect opportunity to raise awareness of not only the importance of eye health but also the vital role of the eyes in acting as an early warning system for some of the most prevalent diseases of our time.

*To receive a recording of the 30-minute webinar ‘Eye health: a workshop for HR and Line Managers’ hosted by Generali UK Employee Benefits in partnership with Best Doctors by Teladoc Health, please email [email protected]

SOURCES

1 VSP, Annual Eye Exams Saved Companies Nearly $3 Billion Each Year, May 2009

2 Medical News Today, Arcus senilis: What you need to know [Accessed August 2021]

3 YourSightMatters.com, Comprehensive eye exams can help identify chronic conditions [Accessed August 2021]

4 Diabetes.co.uk, Diabetes Prevalence, Jan 2019

5 National Eye Institute, Diabetic Retinopathy [Accessed August 2021]

6 National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Diabetic eye disease [Accessed August 2021]

7 Specsavers Customer Panel, January 2021

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8 HSE, Working safely with display screen equipment [Accessed August 2021]

9 Medical News Today, Alzheimer’s disease: an eye test could provide early warning [Accessed August 2021