COVID-19 forced many ECPs to use telehealth for first time

By Dr. Harry Bohnsack,

President of the Canadian Association of Optometrists


Telephone, television, teleoptometry?

Alexander Graham Bell made it possible for people in different locations to speak over a phone line.

Philo T. Farnham built on that, making it possible for people in one area to see and hear people in another area, with the invention of television.

It’s unlikely there is one individual responsible for telemedicine – from which teleoptometry was born, but the concept of a health-care professional providing care using medical and communication technologies can be traced to University of Nebraska clinicians who used it to share neurological exams with medical students. 

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a quick reckoning for all health-care providers regarding the provision of care via telemedicine, including optometrists, who in many instances had to consider teleoptometry in practice for the first time.

While a small minority of optometrists had integrated its use in practice prior to March 2020, it is safe to say that the vast majority were forced to adapt quickly in order to try and meet the visual care and treatment needs of their patients.

Not surprisingly, the diverse challenges involved in providing optometric care across the country meant a different level of integration of teleoptometry in practice. For some eye care professionals, teleoptometry may be confined to providing optometry advice over the phone, while, for others, it means an actual platform that accommodates taking pictures of the eye, enabling therapeutic treatment and follow-up.

The Canadian Association of Optometrists (CAO) surveyed its members this spring and nearly three-quarters confirmed that teleoptometry would impact their practice in the near future.

Many supporters of telemedicine, including many eye care professionals, point to the ease of convenience that it provides for patients. And while that is true, integrating it in practice requires professionals to also ensure ongoing quality of care and patient privacy.

While there are certain aspects of eye care that can be done quite well using teleoptometry, and certain situations (think of people in remote communities who don’t enjoy the same access as those in urban settings), it doesn’t accommodate everything that happens during an in-person visit, which is why an in-person eye examination still remains the gold standard for the majority of eye care diagnoses and treatments.