BY DR. RICHARD HOM
MYOPIA (an elongation of the eyeball) is a common eye disorder that results in blurred vision, but is relatively easy to fix with prescription lenses or contacts. This disorder affects 150 million people in the U.S. and is the most common of the refractive errors, which also include hyperopia (a shortening of the eyeball) and astigmatism. Among these, myopia has the highest prevalence, affecting nearly 42% of Americans, a figure that has doubled in the last three decades, across all race, ethnic and gender demographics.
There are growing concerns that this number could be even higher post-COVID-19 as screen time increased dramatically for all age groups, and while many were less likely to spend time outside. A new phenomenon has surfaced during this time called ‘coronavision,’ where many people noticed their eyesight deteriorating during lockdown.
As vision issues and disorders become more common in part due to the pandemic, ensuring access to acceptable vision care has become paramount to help maintain the overall well-being of Americans. The eyes play a vital role in our quality of life, so it’s important that employers provide comprehensive vision benefits and encourage employees and their families to pursue regular eye exams. It is clear that if not taken care of, these issues can evolve into more severe conditions that can have life-altering implications.
Vision health was an issue before the pandemic
As previously mentioned, the prolonged period living in quarantine and working remotely has contributed to an increased prevalence of various eye conditions including myopia, dry eye and computer vision syndrome. The uninterrupted stretches of time many are spending staring at a computer screen has led to a sharp rise in symptoms of eye fatigue and strain, which when not addressed can lead to myopia and vision impairment.
This is especially concerning given the incidence of refractive errors increases with age, meaning most of the American workforce was already at risk of developing vision issues before the pandemic. According to JAMA Network, Pre-COVID-19, people between the ages of 20 and 39 had 46% prevalence, those between 40 and 59 years of age saw 50% prevalence and those over the age of 60 had almost 63% prevalence.
Supporting employee vision health should be a consistent priority for employers as persistent vision problems not only cause and worsen eye fatigue, but also lead to discomfort and headaches, all of which can impact one’s ability to work and be productive.
Beyond offering vision benefits, employers should also make an effort to ensure employees are taking measures to protect their vision while working. For some, this means going further than recommending employees wear blue light blocking glasses, as there are a number of published studies demonstrating they’re ineffective at alleviating eye strain.
However, some effective methods that should be encouraged include improving ergonomics by adjusting the height and angle of the computer screen and correcting posture, and following the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look up from the screen and focus on something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Additionally, if an employees’ work environment exposes their eyes to chemicals, debris, and/or pollutants, they should always wear safety goggles.
Beyond the employee, vision beneﬁts help children
While employee health is an employer’s first priority, they should also consider the impact that offering quality vision benefits has on the well-being of the employee’s family, since children and in some cases, spouses, will use these benefits as well. This becomes especially important as it relates to children because their vision health has also been negatively impacted by the pandemic, which could have severe implications for their overall development.
While children haven’t been exposed to the daily 9 to 5 of looking at a screen, the stretches of virtual learning has been damaging to their vision, leaving them at higher risk of developing vision issues. This is especially true of younger children in elementary school. Myopia is the biggest concern, and often first diagnosed between the ages of 8 and 12 years old. Worse still, myopia may become worse as the body grows during the teenage years.
Uncorrected vision conditions are among the biggest public health problems in the United States, affecting one in every four children, according to the American Optometric Association. Yet, one in every three schoolchildren in America have not had a vision test in the past two years, if ever. Only 39% of students referred for an eye exam through a routine vision screening end up visiting an eye doctor, and the gap is even larger in high-poverty communities — which leads into the most critical aspect of vision benefits for both adults and children: regular eye exams.
Routine eye checkups are key in preventing untreated vision problems in children that may cause developmental delays, hand-eye coordination problems or a potential lag in their literacy skills. When students who need glasses get them, it can help them learn up to twice as much. For adults, regular eye exams are important to monitor and prevent more serious issues. Those with pre-existing refractory errors are at higher risk for certain types of eye diseases like retinal degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts and retinal detachment, all of which can lead to vision impairment or blindness if not addressed.
The best thing anyone can do to maintain eye wellness is to get an annual eye exam, which can assist with identifying and treating issues, as well as helping ensure individuals are wearing the appropriate corrective lenses with the right prescription.
Choosing a comprehensive vision plan
When evaluating vision plans, consider the benefits of integration. In addition to providing coverage for annual eye doctor visits, integrated plans connect employees’ medical records with their dental, vision, pharmacy and disability information, enabling their primary physician and eye care specialist to work in tandem. This is an important component to maintaining overall health as a simple eye exam can help detect non-eye related medical conditions.
Additionally, an integrated plan allows eye doctors access to a patient’s full medical record, providing them with insights on any chronic conditions that may affect the eyes. Integrated care provides eye doctors and primary care physicians with the tools they need to develop an early intervention plan that minimizes or manages conditions that might lead to vision loss or other serious health problems down the road.
Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s standard integrated vision plan encourages annual check-ups, as well as an eye safety benefit. Anthem provides real-time visibility into a patient’s health history including medications, diagnoses, lab results and care alerts to vision providers, so they can better diagnose and treat consumers. For example, in the past year, Anthem’s integrated health program helped identify more than 30,000 cases of diabetes through vision exams.
Many don’t realize that high blood sugar can lead to blindness, so while some vision problems can be caused by excessive screen time, there could be an underlying issue to blame. Integrated plans can dramatically improve intervention and prevention of not only eye disease and disorders, but other serious chronic conditions affecting whole body health.
Quality vision beneﬁts can make a big difference
Vision impairment is one of the top 10 disabilities among adults 18 years and older, costing our economy $51.4 billion annually. As reported in 2016, it is estimated that the annual cost of failing to correct refractive errors with eyeglasses in the United States was $35.3 billion, $8 billion of which was lost productivity. Eye wellness continues to be a growing public health issue, making it even more important for employers to provide vision benefits that will give employees and their families access to quality vision care to prevent and manage vision conditions, which in turn will keep them healthy and able to work and live comfortably.
DR. RICHARD HOM is currently the Optometric Director at Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. He holds doctorates in Biomedicine and Optometry as well as an MPA degree.
A retired lieutenant colonel U.S. Army Reserve, Dr. Hom is also a Diplomate in Public Health and Environmental Vision with the American Academy of Optometry and a Trustee of the California Optometric Association. His interests are patient safety, population health, telemedicine and the social determinants of disability. Contact: https://www.anthem.com