Over the first half of 2020, healthcare systems around the world have been stretched thin in the fight to contain and control the coronavirus (COVID-19). Amid the herculean effort, there hasn't been much time to focus on some of the longstanding healthcare concerns that existed prior to the pandemic. That doesn't mean, however, that innovative new healthcare initiatives have come to a halt.

Indeed, one of the biggest and most persistent healthcare crises within the US – a general lack of adequate vision care – has gone on for decades unchecked. But now, an Israeli firm, in partnership with a major Northeast regional healthcare provider aims to change all of that.

Earlier this month, UMass Memorial Health Care announced a new effort with Tel Aviv-based AEYE Health to develop a new screening system designed to identify cases of preventable blindness in time to intervene with treatment and other mitigation efforts. If all goes well, the system might help to reverse the trend of vision impairment that now includes as many as 40 million Americans over the age of 40.

The program is set to be funded in large part by a grant provided by the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation, which is a joint entity aimed at fostering cooperation between US and Israeli firms. The grant will be drawn from an 8-million-dollar pool the foundation has earmarked for ten recently-approved projects.

The joint project is expected to draw on AEYE's already-advanced research in applying AI and machine learning techniques to the diagnostic process. The problem they're trying to solve is the relative lack of the kind of human expertise required to perform the number of retinal examinations it would take to accommodate the current level of demand in the US. At present, as many as 75% of people who might benefit from such screenings go without them due to the high costs associated with the current process.

According to representatives from AEYE, their existing system can already provide automated diagnoses for a variety of common vision conditions. They've already reported success in spotting conditions such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, and the system has also shown promise in detecting more advanced conditions like Alzheimer's disease – which is a growing cause of vision loss among elderly populations.

In practice, the development of automated vision screening solutions would be a real game-changer for vision care providers in the US. With the ability to provide on-demand, low-cost retinal screenings, it would be possible to stage an early-intervention program that would lead to better health outcomes and dramatically lower costs. It would even make it possible to address a great deal more of the estimated half-million children in the US living with vision difficulty who might be a single precision-crafted pair of cheap glasses away from a lifetime of better ocular health.

In the long run, the project might be just the first of many collaborations aimed at providing timely and inexpensive vision care services in the US. If these initial efforts find success, it could mark the beginning of a new wave of high-tech service providers that could finally stem the tide of preventable vision loss nationwide.

While it's too soon to tell how long it might take for the work of this new partnership to bear fruit, Dr. Shlomit Schaal of UMass Memorial's Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences is upbeat about the opportunity. He says, "We are truly grateful to receive this funding that will absolutely further and enhance the cause of patient eye care in our region," and that "This patient-friendly technology empowers clinicians with real-time information that will ultimately lead to timelier and better-informed diagnoses."

The one thing that's clear is that if the project lives up to even a fraction of the expectations many have placed on it, there will be millions of lives better off for it. And at a time when there's little to celebrate in the world of healthcare, that would be a welcome outcome, indeed.