Will optometry’s fear of disruptive technology backfire?
Eye care has been a magnet for new—and disruptive—technology. In the past few years, the industry has seen the birth of companies such as Smart Vision Labs, Opternative, and EyeNetra, just to name a few.
“I'm not sure eye care is any different than any business,” says Optometry Times Chief Optometric Editor Ernie Bowling, OD, FAAO. “The opportunity for technological advancement is present everywhere, and there are venture capitalists willing to take a risk on the technology.”
But what is it about eye care that is attracting so much attention in the startup community? Opternative CEO Aaron Dallek tells Optometry Times it’s not just eye care but health care as a whole that is ripe for disruption. But there are aspects of eye care that make it a particularly appealing niche market.
First, Dallek says health care has been slower to adopt new technologies compared to other industries. Second, there is an eyecare accessibility problem internationally and in some areas of the U.S. Third, there’s a lot of money to be made.
“When it comes to disruption, you have to make big changes,” says Dallek, “and that’s what we’ve done and what other people are looking to do in eye care and in health care in general.”
How should ODs respond to new technology?
Many ODs have been vocal in raising their concerns about disruptive technology companies like Opertnative and EyeNetra misleading their customers and ignoring ocular health.
“The question with any of these products is: does it meet a need and how is it placed in the market?” says Dr. Bowling. “I could definitely see this technology meeting a need in third-world countries where there’s little access to health care. But to position it in this marketplace as an ‘eye exam’ willfully neglects the ocular health aspect and is deceptive advertising at a minimum and raises public health concerns.”
Some ODs are equally as concerned that waging the battle against this new technology is damaging the profession’s image.
“I'm afraid that optometry's current all-out assault on online refraction and telemedicine runs the risk of defining our profession more by what we are against rather than what we are for,” says Optometry Times Editorial Advisory Board member and blogger Michael Brown, OD, FAAO. “It will be seen as old-fashioned professional protectionism by a growing demographic of patients for whom managing their lives online is as natural as breathing.”
From Vision Expo East: How ODs fit into the future of online refraction
Dr. Brown says that organized optometry’s calls of an impending public health crisis remind him of the frantic—and eventually debunked—arguments that ophthalmology used against optometry during the great therapeutic wars of the past.
“If the technology doesn't work, most patients will figure that out—give them a little credit,” says Dr. Brown. “If it does, look for ways to use it to your advantage. I believe that shrewd and progressive ODs are doing this. Unfortunately, not all ODs—nor the organizations that represent them—are shrewd and progressive.”
American Optometric Association (AOA) President Steven Loomis, OD, says that the AOA’s fight against Opternative shouldn’t imply that optometrists are anti-technology.
“I don’t know of a profession that is more pro-technology than optometry,” Dr. Loomis says. “Right now in my office, I have an OCT, a new topographer, LipiFlow. To suggest that just because we don’t embrace an inferior technology means that we’re not pro-technology is kind of silly.”
Some ODs are taking these new technologies as a challenge.