By Jayanth Bhuvaraghan
Two years ago, the number of mobile devices in the world officially overtook the number of people. And this milestone couldn’t have been hit without the exponential growth in emerging markets. Over a billion mobile phones are used in India, for example – more than three times the number owned by Americans. And while a mobile phone in the developed world is a convenience, in the developing world it can be a lifeline, particularly in rural areas.
Where previously huge swathes of the population was socially excluded, mobile devices now have the potential to provide information on the latest commodity prices or weather forecasts, and put access to commerce, banking and even healthcare within reach of even the most remote communities.
From rural India to the favelas of Rio, recent advances in mobile health are helping to provide access to health care for communities that were previously completely cut off from established clinics. Vision care is no exception: with 2.5 billion living with the social and economic consequences of uncorrected poor vision, the potential to change lives through a simple touch of a phone screen is an unprecedented opportunity that NGOs and private sector corporations alike are seizing with both hands.
Connecting communities for better vision
Mobile technology is already being used around the world to facilitate the last mile delivery of products and services. This is the case with Instituto Ver e Viver’s Vision Ambassador program in Brazil, which works in the poor communities of Rio to train individuals to step up and work as primary providers of vision care. Using a digital app on their phones to read prescriptions, the Vision Ambassadors are able to propose and sell low-cost eyeglasses on-site to friends and neighbors who would otherwise never have been able to afford to correct their sight.
The Vision Ambassadors are also leveraging their phones to raise awareness of the vision screenings camps they organise. They use their own social media profiles, or, for guaranteed success, call upon local ‘digital marketers’ in their communities who for a very small sum will help advertise their work via extensive WhatsApp networks. The majority of Ambassadors are women, and the extra income they earn helps increase their financial independence while improving the health and prosperity of other residents in their community.
Making life easier for primary service providers in India
While using mobile technology to bridge the gap between patient and provider is an obvious solution to healthcare challenges, it can also make life easier for primary providers by simplifying financial management. Essilor’s Eye Mitra Optician (EMO) inclusive business initiative recruits and trains under-employed youth to bring affordable eye care to rural and semi-urban communities in India.
Although the initiative is only three years old, 1,800 EMOs have already been trained and have today served upwards of 400,000 customers in their communities. To help them to manage their finances, a mobile phone-based money transfer service is being piloted with 141 EMOs in Karnataka.
As well as increasing the transparency of payments, the service is also making the process quicker and easier, freeing up the EMOs to spend more time conducting vision screening in their communities. Next in line for digitization will be the ordering process itself, simplifying the task of stock selection to the click of a button.
A Peek into mobile disruption
Even if 70,000 individuals were screened each day, it would still take a century to reach each of the 2.5 billion people affected by uncorrected poor vision. This is before taking into account the number of technicians who would need to be trained to conduct the tests, or the cost of the equipment involved.
That’s where mobile applications like Peek Acuity come into play. Peek is a mobile application that can be paired with a lens adapter to convert an ordinary smart phone into a vision screening device. It is accurate, as proved by randomized trials in rural Kenya, and, importantly, it is fast. In 2015, 25 teachers across 50 schools used the device to screen 20,000 in just two weeks. This is the sort of disruptive technology that, if brought to scale, would unlock the potential to improve the sight of millions of people around the world.
Calling all innovators
While mobile health technology is already being used to improve how vision care is brought to low-income consumers in underserved communities, the examples above are just the start. An easy-to-use and affordable technology that could administer a reliable eye check would change lives at a revolutionary scale and speed.
A few promising examples of this are being tested today, but they are often either too costly or too complex in terms of the training required to ensure that an accurate reading is obtained. In other cases, namely in remote or rural villages, the vision measurement process may not be easily understood by children and the elderly, leading to potential inaccurate diagnosis and the many consequences that can incur.
Essilor has launched the See Change Challenge to uncover low-cost and scalable solutions that can be used by primary vision care providers to measure refractive errors in underserved areas. While mobile health is a rich vein to be tapped by potential entrants, the Challenge is not limited to would-be app-developers. Essilor is appealing to innovators across all disciplines to lend their expertise to develop any solution that can meet the criteria outlined on the See Change Challenge website. Winning solutions will receive financial awards – 25,000 euros in cash for up to five winners of the first phase and an additional 100,000 euros for up to two final winners – as well as the chance to see their solution scaled to make a lasting and tangible impact in underprivileged communities around the world.
Image courtesy of Essilor
Jayanth Bhuvaraghan is Chief Mission Officer for Essilor International.
Essilor is the world leader in ophthalmic optics with a presence in 100 countries. The Group designs, manufactures and markets an extensive range of vision care solutions that help to correct, protect and prevent risks to the visual health of around one billion people worldwide.
The See Change Challenge is open for applications until October 21, 2016. Read more about the Challenge and how to apply here.