Dr. Konika Sharma, a third-year internal medicine resident at Bassett Medical Center, earned the 2019 E. Donnall Thomas Research Day Outstanding Research Presentation award for research that could help increase early detection of diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes that affects the eyes.  

The complication affects approximately one-third of diabetes patients worldwide, according to a 2015 study in the scientific journal Eye and Vision. Once a patient is diagnosed with diabetes, primary care doctors refer them to go see their eye doctor to make sure the diabetes hasn't affected their eyes, Sharma said. This takes place in the form of a dilated eye examination. 

However, 40% of patients, 50% in some national studies, don't follow through with the referral, said Dr. James Dalton, Sharma's mentor and director of medical education at Bassett Medical Center. Patients have cited such reasons as expensive copays and unwillingness to schedule another doctor appointment, Sharma said. Sharma and her team sought to address this issue. 

"What can we do so that we can improve their follow-up and early-detect this diabetic retinopathy? What can we do from our side?" Sharma said. 

They explored the possibility of detecting diabetic retinopathy by using a hand-held, non-dilating camera, called RetinaVue, that can be used in the primary care clinic itself, eliminating the need for a patient to schedule an additional appointment and improving chances of early detection. 

"If you're counting on a referral to pick up diabetic retinopathy, we know that the referral isn't successful half the time," Dalton said. "If we can capture the retinopathy at the time of their visit, that's a bonus."

Dalton stressed that results obtained using RetinaVue, whether positive or negative for diabetic retinopathy, should still be backed up with an eye dilation exam by an eye doctor. But getting an image right in the primary care clinic could help improve early detection odds, he said. 

The research took almost two years to complete and the team included research nurses, a statistician, and two eye doctors who helped develop the hypothesis for the research, Sharma said. This is a pilot study, in no way proving that RetinaVue can replace referral to an eye doctor, said Dalton. Sharma said she hopes to take the research further by coming up with a new hypothesis that looks at the sensitivity of RetinaVue at catching diabetic retinopathy. 

Shweta Karikehalli, staff writer, can be reached at skarikehalli@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_ShwetaK on Twitter.