By Dr. Daniel Levy
As more companies address workforce health with wellness initiatives to meet the needs of their employees, a well-rounded benefits package that includes medical, dental and vision is one of the first steps to promoting comprehensive preventive care. For many people, however, there is a common perception that medical insurance and visiting the doctor will help identify health issues or diseases, whereas vision insurance is a benefit you tap into if your family has a history of poor eyesight or you notice your own eyesight is not as sharp as it used to be. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Preventive care for the eyes can go a long way in keeping the body healthy and identifying diseases.
As many eye care practitioners will tell you – the eyes are the window to your health and should be as much of a priority as getting an annual health exam. It might be surprising but small organs such as the eyes can shed light on what’s happening throughout the body. This is why it is important brokers emphasize to their clients the value of preventive eye care measures and why communicating to employees that eye care can help identify health issues beyond their eyes.
Preventive eye care starts by educating the workforce about the value of having vision insurance and the importance of an annual comprehensive eye exam. Having an annual eye exam allows an eye care professional to take a look at a patient’s ocular health as well as their overall health. In addition to determining vision prescription and detecting vision health problems such as nearsightedness and astigmatism, a comprehensive eye exam can reveal changes happening throughout the body. For example, diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in the United States, with approximately 12,000 to 24,000 new cases of blindness each year. Eye care practitioners are often the first to observe early signs and symptoms of diabetes which can cause blurry vision from blood sugar fluctuation.
It doesn’t start and stop with diabetes. Annual eye exams can also reveal other overall health issues including:
- STDs—unresolved pinkeye and other signs (syphilis, chlamydia, herpes)
- Thyroid disease—dry eye, muscle stiffness, bulging eyes (Graves’ disease)
- High cholesterol—buildup on the cornea; plaques clogging arteries in the eye
To many, it’s surprising that an annual eye exam can detect these diseases before a physician but finding them early can help keep medical costs down. This is often due to the eye practitioner identifying the issue in its early stages, prompting the patient to get treatment before the illness or disease worsens and communicating these findings with the patient’s primary care physician.
While it’s unlikely that most employees think of vision insurance as a preventive benefit, the vision care industry is growing as more employers offer vision as part of a standard benefit. Patients are four times more likely to seek professional eye care services from an eye care professional when offered vision benefits that cover both an eye exam as well glasses and or contact lenses according to the National Association of Vision Care Plans (NAVCP). More than 87 percent of Americans with benefits plan to receive an eye exam in the next 12 months (versus only 67 percent without benefits. These statistics indicate that brokers should work with their clients to develop communications tools showing employees the benefits of using their vision insurance for proactive care. Brokers should be equipped to promote vision by offering lunch and learns or incorporating vision care at wellness fairs hosted by employers to promote proactive eye care. In addition, clients should keep in mind that their employees want quality service and versatility of access when it comes to vision insurance.
In communicating with clients, brokers should be aware of new trends that are taking place when it comes to vision benefits and the demands from vision insurance users and eye care professionals. Over the past year, there have been new trends that have evolved from technology advancements and improved care including:
- Vision Care Professionals as Advocates
Family history of eye conditions means there’s a higher chance of eye issues in younger generations. Early detection of some major diseases is possible through annual eye exams, which decreases overall healthcare costs. Additionally, ignoring vision problems can result in even more damage with age and most costly care down the road.
Online is Taking Over Eye Care Shopping
There will be a greater demand for online eye wear and accessories. For example, people want to order contact lenses and or eye glasses through an online portal rather than in-store purchases. While ordering online for contacts is one thing, it is important to remind clients to communicate with their employees that online tests cannot replace in-person eye exams.
- Blue is the Favorite Color
There is greater awareness and demand for innovative lens technologies, such as lenses that protect against sunlight and the blue light emitted from technology devices. For many employees, they spend most of their days looking at a computer, and blue lens can help protect eyes from damage associated with computer screens.
- Telemedicine is Here
Telemedicine, also referred to as telehealth, is beginning to slowly emerge in the workplace. According to Guardian’s 5th Annual Workplace Benefits Study (2017), 28 percent of working Americans say their medical plan offers access to telemedicine, and of those, just 7 percent have used it. Among those without access to telemedicine, 22 percent would be interested in using it. Tele-optometry equipment is one technological advancement poised to change the vision marketplace. With the right, portable equipment, an eye care practitioner can perform an eye test using a hand-held device that sends the results to a mobile phone or iPad. Within minutes, a person can find out whether they need glasses or whether they need to change their prescription for a stronger one.
Given the positive impact that preventive care can have on eye health, brokers and consultants should encourage employers to consider the following:
- Meet industry standard for preventive care benefits
- Expand your plan’s definition of preventive services
- Incentivize use of in-network providers
- Enhance plan member communication to focus on preventive care and services
As eye health costs increase and vision insurance becomes a standard employer offered health benefit, more and more Americans can use their insurance to support their eye health. Taking proactive steps to protect eye health can lead to better overall health as well. In addition, preventive eye care can lead to lower comprehensive healthcare costs. It is important that brokers work with their clients to emphasize the value of proactive eye care.
Dr. Daniel Levy, O.D. CPHM, is chief optometric officer, The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America.