Regular eye screening is vital for people with diabetes

For many years diabetes has been the leading cause of people developing blindness in New Zealand.

Diabetes can cause accelerated damage to the retina and lens, and makes conditions such as cataracts more likely. However, with new advances in preventative or corrective treatment, existing damage can sometimes be slowed, stopped or in some cases reversed.

Not so long ago all Canterbury diabetic screening photographs were taken in the Ophthalmology Department. This kind of screening can pick up on diabetes related eye damage and help ensure people are referred early for the right treatment. The number of people with diabetes is increasing but the Opthalmology Team and its capacity to carry out this kind of screening work isn’t, so it had to think of a better way.

In 2013 the Diabetic Retinopathy Screening Service devised a new pathway that enabled people to be screened in the community by designated optometrists. Linked into the Screening Service, this often means people can arrange an appointment to suit them.

This simple but effective change has contributed to a 20% increase in the number of people with diabetes having their eyes photographed.

Another important advance has been the development of mobile screening clinics. In this way the Screening Service goes to the patients, rather than the other way round. Both the Optometry Screening Service and the Mobile Screening Clinics have significantly improved the way in which screening occurs in Canterbury, not just by reducing waiting times, but also by taking the screening to the patient.

Eye specialists recommend people have a full diabetes eye check soon after they are diagnosed with diabetes. This can easily be arranged by the general practitioner and consists of a simple photograph of the back of the eye (retina). After this, regular photographs are taken – usually every 2 years.

Diabetes and vision

Diabetes affects the blood vessels throughout the body and in the eye – these blood vessels are especially fragile and vulnerable. Leaky or blocked blood vessels can cause damage called retinopathy or maculopathy which in turn can result in reduced vision or even blindness.

The good news is that it can often be successfully treated if discovered in its early stages.

People with diabetes are twice as likely to develop cataracts and tend to get them at a younger age and they progress faster. A cataract is where the lens in the eye becomes cloudy, blocking light from reaching the back of the eye resulting in impaired vision.

Cataracts can nearly always be treated successfully. Find out more at Cataracts.


This story is part of Canterbury finds better ways to care for diabetes patients.

Read the next story in this series: Specialist nurses keep care in the community.

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