Emerg­ing tal­ent: Eye pod

One in the eye for blind­ness


IN EARLY MAY, oph­thal­mol­o­gist Dr Hong Sheng Chiong re­leased a cun­ning 3D printable gad­get that turns a smart­phone into a reti­nal cam­era for eye ex­am­i­na­tions. Twenty four hours later, he woke to 150 emails.

Another three days, and there had been more than a thou­sand down­loads of his adapter, the Oph­thalmicDocs Fun­dus.

It hadn’t cost any­one (ex­cept him) a penny. And that’s just how Hong likes it.

By day, Hong runs the eye clinic at Gis­borne Hos­pi­tal. But in his spare time, he is work­ing to­wards a wider goal: giv­ing doc­tors in the third world the tools to de­tect – and there­fore treat – pre­ventable blind­ness.

The Oph­thalmicDocs Fun­dus (Oph­thalmicDocs is the name of Hong’s com­pany; fun­dus is a sci­en­tific name for the retina) is a 3D printable gad­get; ba­si­cally a small arm which holds a con­dens­ing lens at one end and at­taches to the cam­era part of a smart­phone at the other.

It turns a mo­bile phone into a reti­nal cam­era, which can look into the back of the eye, the most dif­fi­cult area to view.

Com­bined with the Oph­thalmicDocs Eye App, free eye-test­ing soft­ware con­tain­ing tests and imag­ing, the cam­era puts a por­ta­ble eye clinic in the hands of a doc­tor.

Hong says even eye charts on the wall of a clinic can cost thou­sands of dol­lars, so he’s con­verted all the ba­sic vi­sion tests into a smart­phone-friendly app for­mat.

Hong be­lieves he has built the first, free, open­source eye equip­ment in the world. And that’s just how he likes it too. Now he’s call­ing on users around the world to send back sug­ges­tions for de­sign im­prove­ments, which can be in­cluded in the next it­er­a­tion. 3D mod­els can be sub­mit­ted now via the com­pany’s web­site.

“We be­lieve ev­ery­one de­serves ac­cess to qual­ity eye care. It’s sup­posed to be cheap, to help peo­ple in de­vel­op­ing na­tions. So why would you put a la­bel on it or mark up the price by 300-400%? Those things re­ally make me sick.”

Born in Bor­neo, Hong did his med­i­cal de­gree and first round of post­grad­u­ate train­ing in Ire­land, and then headed to Kenya, Nepal and Malaysia be­fore mov­ing to New Zealand. He says work­ing in the third world in­volved chal­lenges he had never an­tic­i­pated.

“In de­vel­oped na­tions, when you’re do­ing all these con­ven­tional eye ex­am­i­na­tions, you take the equip­ment for granted. But when I was in those [de­vel­op­ing] coun­tries I re­alised that peo­ple are try­ing their best to care for the pa­tient but they just don’t have the right equip­ment or the right tools.”

So af­ter fin­ish­ing his Post­grad­u­ate Diploma in Oph­thal­mol­ogy at Otago Univer­sity, Hong and his team (an eye spe­cial­ist, a prod­uct de­signer, a med­i­cal engi­neer and an IT spe­cial­ist) de­vel­oped eye exam gear fit­ting three cri­te­ria: af­ford­abil­ity, ac­ces­si­bil­ity, and ac­cu­racy.

Hong says while char­i­ties of­ten do­nate ex­pen­sive equip­ment (one cam­era can cost $20,000), the risk is that if fund­ing stops or vol­un­teers are no longer avail­able, com­mu­ni­ties are again left to fend for them­selves.

Mean­while, tra­di­tional oph­thalmic equip­ment is of­ten bulky and hard to trans­port to peo­ple in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties.

“That’s why I de­cided to cre­ate a sys­tem that’s ac­cu­rate, por­ta­ble, af­ford­able and ac­ces­si­ble, so that peo­ple in those places, all they need to do is pack all those things in a back­pack and they can do the ba­sic eye ex­am­i­na­tions that they need.”

Ac­cu­rate di­ag­no­sis is the cru­cial first step to find­ing the right treat­ment, he says.

“In a pri­mary or ru­ral set­ting where you’re a nor­mal GP or emer­gency physi­cian, not an eye­doc­tor, and you haven’t got ac­cess to any of this eye equip­ment, how could you make a di­ag­nos­tic judg­ment on a pa­tient?”

Ear­lier this year Hong went back to Bor­neo to test out his ideas.

“I saw about 15 peo­ple, vil­lagers and some fam­ily friends, and I man­aged to pick up at least three or four cataracts and a blind­ing corneal con­di­tion as well.”

He’s also used his baby as a test sub­ject – much to his wife’s ini­tial trep­i­da­tion.

“I was try­ing to see if it could work on that spe­cific sit­u­a­tion, be­cause if you’re look­ing at ba­bies and kids it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to bring them up to the mi­cro­scope in the eye clinic.”

Hong has also pro­vided many Kiwi GPs with the equip­ment, as he says it im­proves the re­fer­ral sys­tem in New Zealand.

Now the team has a fur­ther 10 things it is work­ing on, in­clud­ing a mi­cro­scope to look at the front of the eye, fur­ther tests within the app and a vir­tual head­set.

Idea­log’s Emerg­ing Tal­ent fea­ture com­bines a great story about new tal­ents and tech­nolo­gies writ­ten by an emerg­ing jour­nal­ist. In this case the ar­ti­cle was writ­ten by AUT com­mu­ni­ca­tions stu­dent Han­nah Bartlett.

Dr Hong Sheng Chiong demon­strates the Oph­thalmicDocs Fun­dus at TEDx Auck­land

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