Tackling a global vision crisis

Monday, January 30, 2023

Ben Thompson holding a black apparatus to participants head.

The World Health Organization estimates that 2.2 billion people globally have a vision impairment. Dr. Stan Woo, director of the University of Waterloo’s School of Optometry and Vision Science, views this statistic as a call to action, one he and his colleagues are working to fix. New investments and innovations are creating better access to care.

Waterloo has launched two new facilities to support this mission across Canada and Asia. The Waterloo Eye Institute is a state-of-the-art facility in Waterloo that will expand Optometry’s current delivery of essential care. The Centre for Eye and Vision Research (CEVR) has a global reach through its partnership with Hong Kong Polytechnic University. CEVR’s CEO, Dr. Ben Thompson, says that the facility is “Waterloo's first footprint into Asia and provides unique opportunities for the University to connect with that region.”

These new facilities are an important step to tackling the vision crisis and, when combined with cutting-edge technology, are improving patients’ lives.

Ben Thompson in the lab.Thompson (pictured right) uses the example of amblyopia, also called a lazy eye, to understand the impact new technology can have on vision care. In this condition, the brain favours processing information from one eye over the other. Normally, children who have it are given an eye patch, while adults go untreated. This is because with older patients “there was a view that the adult brain doesn't have enough neuroplasticity to relearn.” With the help of new technologies, this is no longer the case.

“There are technologies in neurology, like non-invasive brain stimulation, that can be used to alter the way the brain uses information. And we're applying that to vision. It's challenging traditional beliefs in what is possible and disrupting the way that patients may be treated.”

He says that to improve patient outcomes, in addition to adopting a progressive stance, the industry also must evolve and “needs to provide new technologies for people to use”. Today, among innovations being advanced at CEVR is a video game designed specifically so that amblyopia patients can train their eyes to work together.

Stan WooIn Canada, Woo (pictured left) is working towards a new tele-optometry centre. “Like mission control for NASA, the idea is that we would deliver comprehensive remote eye examinations. The technology is not in place yet, but we know that it's on the cusp, and we want to build for the future.”

Waterloo optometrists are currently working within remote Indigenous communities in British Columbia to provide care on the ground in these areas. However, due to weather, their access remains seasonal — typically limited to the summer and fall months. A tele-optometry centre will allow doctors to monitor patients year-round virtually. “It saves time, it saves money, it provides improved access.”

Woo emphasizes the community-based nature of this project. “We're not trying to do everything from Waterloo, Ontario, on our own. It's about leveraging the great work that optometrists do across Canada.”

Both Thompson and Woo are optimistic at the progress being made in vision health care and note that Canada has shown valuable leadership in advancing optometry into a new technological era. Facilities such as CEVR and the Waterloo Eye Institute demonstrate the impact technology can have in creating better access to care.

“It's a really exciting time to be an optometrist,” says Woo. “There is a lot of good that that we can do.”