UofL one of 12 facilities in telemedicine study
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (June 26, 2014) — The University of Louisville was one of 12 medical facilities in the U.S. that participated in a telemedicine study funded by the National Eye Institute to screen for the potentially blinding disease known as retinopathy of premature babies.
Investigators say that the approach, if adopted broadly, could help ease the strain on hospitals with limited access to ophthalmologists and lead to better care for infants in underserved areas of the country.
The telemedicine strategy consisted of electronically sending photos of babies’ eyes to a distant image reading center for evaluation. Staff at the image reading center, who were trained to recognize signs of severe ROP, identified whether infants should be referred to an ophthalmologist for evaluation and potential treatment. The study tested how accurately the telemedicine approach reproduced the conclusions of ophthalmologists who examined the premature babies onsite.
Some degree of ROP appears in more than half of all infants born at 30 weeks pregnancy or younger—a full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks—but only about 5 to 8 percent of cases become severe enough to require treatment. In ROP, blood vessels in the tissue in the back of the eye called the retina begin to grow abnormally, which can lead to scarring and detachment of the retina. Treatment involves destroying the abnormal blood vessels with lasers or freezing them using a technique called cryoablation. Early diagnosis and prompt treatment is the best prevention for vision loss from ROP, which is why the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends routine screening for all babies who are born at gestational age 30 weeks or younger or who weigh less than 3.3 pounds at birth.
The study evaluated telemedicine for ROP screening during the usual care of 1,257 premature infants who were born, on average, 13 weeks early. About every nine days, each infant underwent screening by an ophthalmologist, who assessed whether referral for treatment was warranted. Those who were referred were designated as having referral-warranted ROP (RW-ROP). Either immediately before or after the exam, a non-physician staff member in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) took images of the infant’s retinas and uploaded them to a secure server at the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City. Trained non-physician image readers at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, then downloaded the photos, independently evaluated them following a standard protocol, and reported the presence or absence of RW-ROP.
Through the telemedicine approach, non-physician image readers correctly identified 90 percent of the infants deemed to have RW-ROP based on examination by an ophthalmologist. And they were correct 87 percent of the time when presented with images from infants who lacked RW-ROP. The examining ophthalmologists documented 244 infants with RW-ROP on exam. After referral, 162 infants were treated. Of these, non-physician image readers identified RW-ROP in all but three infants (98 percent).
Weekly ROP screening—or even more frequently for high-risk babies—is a realistic goal for telemedicine and could help catch all cases needing treatment, according to the report. In the study, imaging was restricted to occasions when an ophthalmologist examined the baby. In practice, hospital staff could implement an imaging schedule based on the baby’s weight, age at birth and other risk factors.