Smartphone-Based Portable Eye Exam is Saving Sight Overseas

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Imagine needing glasses and just never getting them. That’s the reality for many of the 285 million visually-impaired people around the world. According to the World Health Organization, glasses could help about 153 million people who struggle to see at a distance, and another 544 million who have trouble seeing close-up. Unfortunately, in many parts of the globe, getting an eye exam is not an option.

Smart Vision Labs is hoping to change that. The startup’s founders created a portable device that attaches to an iPhone and uses the camera and flashlight to create an eyeglass prescription. Called the SVOne, the device is easily portable, accurate and far less expensive than existing portable devices.

Last year, Smart Vision Labs won a Verizon Powerful Answers Award of $1 million that allowed them to test the product in the field in Guatemala and Haiti. We spoke to David McPhillips, OD, President of Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH) International, a non-profit that brings eye care to developing countries. His regional VOSH chapter in Pennsylvania hosted the field test of the SVOne in Haiti this August. Here’s what he told us about this innovation in portable eye care:

Tell us about the field test in Haiti.

Our VOSH Chapter in Pennsylvania has been going to Haiti four times each year for about 10 years. Smart Vision Labs contacted me to see if they could test their prototype device on our August trip. They sent two people to work alongside our team of 12 to 15 people. We see 400 to 500 patients each day wherever we can—in churches or town halls. The Smart Vision Labs people compared their instrument alongside the exams we were giving using traditional portable autorefractors.

What were the results?

Their instrument was as accurate as the traditional models, and in some cases more accurate. Sometimes the other instrument is affected by glare or lighting. But the biggest improvement was with little kids. They tend to over-focus, making their eye exams inaccurate. The Smart Vision Labs instrument was more accurate in kids.

What is the impact of helping kids see better?

The most preventive thing you can do is catch eye problems early. We had kids who came in with parents thinking they were blind, but they just needed a prescription. Most kids in Haiti have to work to support their family after elementary school. If a child has a vision issue, he or she will not learn in school and can become a burden on his or her family. School helps them break the cycle of poverty. Correcting their vision is life changing.

How do the patients get glasses?

VOSH works by supporting local sustainable organizations in remote areas. We partner with an organization in Haiti that has a lab to make prescription glasses. If people can’t pay, they don’t. We support them by sending frames and paying for materials. We take a lot of reading glasses down when we go.

How can the Smart Vision Labs test help?

When we travel to Haiti, we spend up to $1,000 just to ship all of our stuff with us. This Smart Vision Labs instrument will eliminate an extra suitcase. You can put this instrument in your pocket on the plane, and that ensures it won’t get damaged. One of our larger instruments was damaged [in flight], costing $2,000 to repair. The Smart Vision Labs product is less expensive to purchase, easier to transport, and will be better protected in a carry-on bag.

After the test, are you getting one?

The SVOne is due out in February, and our chapter has already reserved one.

See here for an update from Verizon’s Chairman and CEO on Smart Vision’s progress since winning last year’s Powerful Answers Award.

This year’s $1 million Award winners will be announced soon. Learn more about this award for innovation in healthcare, education, sustainability and transportation.

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