FDRHPO Launches New Regional “Diabetic TeleRetinopathy” Program

With funding support from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and state Senator Patty Ritchie, 28 primary care practices in the tri-county region will offer telemedicine-based care for diabetic retinopathy

WATERTOWN – The Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization (FDRHPO) is pleased to announce a new regional initiative that will improve vision health for diabetic patients in the North Country.

The Telemedicine-Based Diabetic Retinopathy Screening Program will use state-of-the-art technology to screen at-risk patients for diabetic retinopathy – a condition in which high blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the retina, leading to vision disorders and blindness.

With portable retina cameras embedded in primary care offices throughout Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, medical staff will be able to capture a detailed image of a patient’s retina and securely send it to a participating ophthalmologist or optometrist for assessment. Within hours, a diagnostic report is returned to the primary care provider, who follows up with the patient to discuss results and develop an individualized care plan.

FDRHPO Executive Director Erika F. Flint unveiled the new technology Tuesday morning during a press conference at the Samaritan Medical Plaza. She said access to regular diabetic eye exams is crucial to a patient’s health, especially here in the North Country.

Diabetes is one of the most pervasive chronic diseases in our region, affecting 11% of adults in the tri-county area,” she said. “This statistic becomes more alarming when we see that only 55% of North Country residents with diabetes had a dilated eye exam in the past year – significantly less than the statewide average of 74.5%. This technology will ease the burden on patients who would otherwise travel hours for this kind of specialty care, and it will also encourage new patients to get screened.

Funding for the program is provided by a three-year, $150,000 Member and Community Health Improvement Grant from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. This grant program provides funding to local, nonprofit organizations that share Excellus’ vision for healthier communities. The initiatives supported span multiple years and include specific objectives and measurable outcomes for improving community health. The grant dollars are disbursed over several years to ensure they significantly and positively affect public health.

An additional $50,000 was secured by state Senator Patty Ritchie in September 2017.

“This grant will further one of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s priority goals, which is to improve comprehensive diabetes care, including increasing screening rates for diabetes-related eye disease,” said Eve Van de Wal, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield regional president. “Through early detection and intervention, we hope to prevent unnecessary blindness and complications among our neighbors who have diabetes. Aligning our goals with those of the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, we are poised to dramatically increase the number of patients screened for diabetes-related eye disease in our community.”

“Today is a wonderful example of the North Country’s unique relationship with Fort Drum,” said Senator Ritchie. “When we work together, we all benefit. I am pleased to secure this funding, which will benefit families across the North Country, including our brave soldiers and military families.”

The eye exam takes less than five minutes to perform and does not require dilation for 85-90% of patients. It can be performed during a routine primary care visit and is noninvasive. This five-minute intervention can be life changing, as early detection will prevent vision loss in 95% of diabetic retinopathy cases.

Currently, 28 primary care practices and clinics have been identified to participate in the program, along with two local ophthalmologists and one local optometrist. FDRHPO expects 15 of the 28 sites to begin offering this service to patients within one year, and the rest to follow suit shortly after.

All sites will use RetinaVue 100 Imager cameras provided by Welch Allyn, of Skaneateles Falls, NY. Welch Allyn also provides the region with technical training for providers and the secure network necessary for transmitting images to specialists and reports back to primary care providers.

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About the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization

FDRHPO works to strengthen the system for health for the integrated Fort Drum and civilian community through analysis, identification of needs and leveraging of resources to fill gaps through innovation and collaboration. For more about FDRHPO, visit www.fdrhpo.org.

About Excellus BlueCross BlueShield

Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, a nonprofit independent licensee of the BlueCross BlueShield Association, is part of a family of companies that finances and delivers vital health care services to about 1.5 million people across upstate New York. Excellus BlueCross BlueShield provides access to high-quality, affordable health coverage, include valuable health-related resources that our members use every day, such as cost-saving prescription drug discounts and wellness tracking tools. To learn more, visit ExcellusBCBS.com.


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