How much do you like your optometrist? Are they funny? Friendly, talkative, interesting, or attentive?
I ask because soon you may have to make an excuse to visit them in person. Optometry, like every other healthcare industry from pharmacies to family doctors, is going online and turning into e-commerce. It’s still an emerging market, so, for now, there’s plenty of face-to-face time built into even an online visit, thanks to the ubiquity of video calling.
But even that sci-fi sounding setup won’t last forever. The person-to-person aspect of our fledgling virtual optometrists will eventually get replaced with automated, AI-guided, 3-second retina-scan-and-delivery services. Why? Because once telehealth crosses over into e-commerce, speed-of-service becomes paramount and something as seemingly human-dependant as a prescription eye exam can be turned over to the bots to take up as little of our time as possible.
Telehealth holds great potential to ease our access to doctors and other professionals, but e-commerce is all about consumption.
Online Eye Exams with Video Conferencing
It may seem like I’m skipping over a rather important development here to chase down a dystopian fantasy. But the fact is that virtual, online prescription eye exams are already here. People are already visiting sites such as My Eyelab or using smartphone apps like Smart Vision to undertake eye tests as accurate as the traditional in-room version (like the kind that makes you stare down what looks like the eyepiece of a WWII submarine periscope).
These virtual tests don’t even require the supervision of a doctor. The people who supervise the My Eyelab version over a video calling connection are there, so it seems, just to talk a patient through what is about to happen and reassure them everything is above board.
Patients enter their personal medical history, undertake a few different tests based on the old pyramid of numbers eye chart, and then the essential information is sent off to an optometrist who can produce a diagnosis and email the results to the customer within 24 hours. Meanwhile, the patient is left to search through a range of frames offered online, which presumably will appear in the mail a few days later, lenses fitted.
That’s the key element of online optometry. It’s already in place, already happening. So, let’s move on to phase two–increasing efficiency by eliminating humans.
AI for Better Eye Exams
As I mentioned above, these online eye tests don’t require a doctor’s supervision, only their expertise to determine a diagnosis. That role too could soon be taken away.
By now most of us are familiar with the chatbots used in video conferencing and social media, as well as voice-activated virtual assistants like Microsoft’s Cortana or Amazon’s Alexa. These talkative companions are the public face of artificial intelligence. Given time, they learn our habits and preferences, which can help them provide us with instant help to pick a restaurant, find a cheap flight, or even turn the air-conditioning on before we arrive home.
The real cutting-edge of machine learning, however, is being used on some more big-picture projects. Did you know, for instance, that last year a new treatment for the Ebola virus was discovered by a computer working on its own? The AI program Atomwise made the discovery by scouring through thousands of approved medicines using a learned algorithm and finding a never-before-used drug combination that slowed the virus’ spread.
If AI can learn so complex a trick, it can certainly learn to match a patient’s history, eye chart, and eye scan results with an appropriate prescription. No doubt it could do it quicker than an optometrist with a clinic full of patients. And there we are. A patient in need of a new prescription can go from reciting an eye chart to unwrapping a new pair of glasses within a few days, without ever seeing an optometrist.
Get a Better Webcam and Get a Prescription from Home
That glorious, “I got my new prescription glasses during my coffee break” day is still dependant on high functioning AI trickling down to commercial use, but don’t underestimate the speed of commercialization in the tech world. Remember when GPS was a little box you placed on your dashboard? Now it’s available free with your phone.
Luckily, the technology is ready and waiting for the patient’s end of the exchange. Just this year Logitech unveiled the first 4K, infrared, facial recognition equipped web camera targeted at the public, which we gave our professional opinion of in VC Daily’s Logitech BRIO review. This device provides professional grade clarity that ought to make an eye test easy to administer from afar, and it has 3D facial scanning that can detect the depth of an object, which has got to aid in any medical exam.
With personal devices like that available, and AI already overqualified for the diagnostics of a prescription eye test, it’s only a matter of time before getting a new prescription becomes as easy as checking your Facebook page. And Facebook and its kind are exactly the type of venue that could exploit this new technology.
What’s to prevent them from partnering with a group like the one behind the Smart Vision app, and including such a common service within a social setting? Perhaps Facebook Messenger, which is already trying to be all things to all people, could open up a portal dedicated to all things telehealth. You could end up being able to pick up aspirin, cough medicine, an asthma inhaler, or even diabetes treatments from a competing group of online, Facebook-endorsed pharmacies.
Video conferencing has enabled the human eye to be examined by a smart machine over a distance. In turn, that will push telehealth into e-commerce, where competing, automated optometrists will vie for your prescription dollar while you check your social media.
Image Sources: Flickr CC Users Dr. Wendy Longo, National Eye Institute, NIAID, and Tetsuji Sakakibara