Optometrists in the future may identify early signs of cancer with a digital retinal scan — a painless procedure that takes just a matter of seconds.
It may sound like science fiction, but the necessary technology already exists, and a local optometrist has already correctly identified early indicators of cancer — twice.
David Morrill, an optometrist with Oquirrh Mountain Eye Care in Tooele, has detected two cases of cancer in the six weeks since he acquired an Optimap, a new device that uses lasers to capture wide-lense digital images of the back of the eye.
Though intended to allow optometrists to view the back of the eye through the pupil without dilation, Morrill said the Optimap’s wide-angle images have enabled him to catch early indicators of diseases not usually associated with the eye.
Morrill said the device can detect signs of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and other conditions in addition to eye-related diseases. Since bringing the Optimap to his practice, Morrill said he has discovered previously unknown abnormalities in nearly half of the patients who have opted to try the new scan.
Most are benign — essentially just freckles on the eye, he said. But in some cases, Morrill has spied indicators that have prompted him to refer his patients to their regular family doctor.
In one such circumstance, Morrill said, the Optimap images enabled him to see a series of small tumors that were millimeters from growing into the brain. The patient ultimately lost his eye to the tumor, Morrill said, but the operation probably saved his life.
In another case, Morrill said he noticed some unusual hemorrhages in the eye that he later discovered were an early symptom of leukemia.
“I can’t imagine practicing without this now,” he said. “There’s no way I could do an eye exam justice knowing this was out there.”
But the technology behind the Optimap isn’t especially new, Morrill said. Retinal scanners have been available for nearly a decade, but it wasn’t until recently that continued technological improvement made the device affordable for a practice such as Oquirrh Mountain Eye Care.
It’s still not cheap, though. The Optimap came with a $60,000 price tag, Morrill said, and most insurance companies won’t cover the cost of a scan, which runs at about $29 per person. Despite the cost, about 80 percent of his patients still opt for the scan, Morrill said, because most prefer not to have their eyes dilated for the traditional exam.
“I knew it was going to be expensive, but I don’t care if we make money right now,” he said. “The important thing was incorporating the new technology into our practice. This eventually is going to be the standard of care.”
Ideally, Morrill said, he’d like to see insurance companies cover the cost of the scan so it can become a standard preventative exam. It has the potential to save lives, he said.