Online Eye Exams? See Through the Hype

It is recommended that the average adult should get a regular eye exam every 2 to 3 years. Remembering to schedule a visit may slip your mind, especially if you haven’t noticed any changes in your vision.

It makes new online eye exams and resources, such as Opternative, more appealing and practical. Online eye exams are quick, easy and free. You don’t need to go anywhere; you can take a test right from your home. An in-house ophthalmologist reviews the results and sends your prescription.

Telemedicine is promising and provides easy access to care, but these types of eye tests should be approached with caution.

“The intention of online eye exams is only to provide a refractive prescription.” said Josh Olson, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Neurosciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “These online tools are only able to determine the refractive error of a person’s eyes and does not replace a complete ocular examination done by a licensed professional.”

Why? For starters, online tools cannot diagnose medical diseases, like a torn retina, corneal disease, glaucoma, dry eye diseases, macular degeneration, cataracts and more. If vision has changed, and a patient seeks out an online eye exam, they will not know why the change is happening. In some cases, it may be linked to an eye disease or condition. Some conditions, like glaucoma or ocular melanoma, won’t show symptoms until it has become advanced.

An ocular exam, or dilated eye exam, will help catch those conditions early and start treatment to preserve vision and repair damage. A refractive exam misses those problems.

“I would not recommend an online refractive exam for individuals who have never been seen by an ophthalmologist or optometrist,” Olson said.

He recommends a dilated eye exam with an optometrist or ophthalmologist every 2-3 years for healthy individuals age 18-50. After 50, exams should be every 1-2 years depending on risk factors.

If someone had a dilated eye exam in the last two years, and appears to be healthy, they could use an online refractive exam to update their prescription for glasses prescriptions only. Contact lenses are technically medical devices, and an annual in-person exam is necessary for the ophthalmologist or optometrist to ensure they are working properly.

“I think that telemedicine is an inevitable advancement that will be embraced in ophthalmology,” Olson said. “However, patients must understand that the currently offered online eye services do not check the health of their eyes, and therefore these online tools should not replace a regular, dilated eye exam with an ophthalmologist or optometrist for the sake of convenience and time savings.”