SINGAPORE: It is called the “silent thief of sight”, and is a major cause of blindness in Singapore and the second in the world.
Glaucoma, which is not curable, often goes unnoticed until a significant loss of vision has occurred.
The good news is that treatments are available to prevent further damage.
Laser treatment or surgery may be recommended if glaucoma isn’t controlled at the first stage of treatment, which is simple and must be followed faithfully.
In most cases, patients start with medicated eye drops to help control the disease.
To most of us, putting eye drops seems like a fairly simple task, but there is more to this treatment than meets the eye.
“So what happens is that a lot of our patients are on one, two, three, sometimes four [types of eye drops]. Some eye drops are only to one eye, some eye drops are to both eyes,” explains Dr Jocelyn Chua, a consultant to the Glaucoma Service at the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC).
It often becomes more complicated when the different eye drops have to be used more than once a day.
66-year-old Daisy Tan has been a glaucoma patient for seven years and for her it is not the task of putting the eye-drops, but remembering when to do so, that is the problem.
“I’m not very regular with the timing,” said Mdm Tan as a slight shadow of guilt crossed her face.
“Sometimes at 9am, sometimes at 10am, sometimes at 11am… sometimes I totally forget,” she said, adding that she will occasionally apply eye drops twice having lost track of her usage for the day.
The routine can be confusing and is believed to be one of the main reasons why many glaucoma patients tend to forget about their eyesight-saving medication.
Taking a look at the problem from a different perspective, the SNEC came up with solution that tapped on technology.
“With this, once it rings I know have to put it and that’s it,” said Mdm Tan, gesturing to her mobile phone where she has installed the application, MyEyeDrops.
With mobile phones now a must-have, the health centre developed the MyEyeDrops mobile app to help patients track and tackle what would otherwise be a bothersome task.
While MyEyeDrops functions mainly as a reminder that will prompt patients to use their eye drops, the app can do more than just beep, buzz or ring at the right time.
The app allows users to personalise the reminder by selecting specific details such as the type of eye drop and which eye to put the medication into.
To make it easier for patients to recognise and select the eye drop they’re using, the SNEC also included pictures along with the brand names of all the eye drops available in their pharmacy.
The app also helps patients deal better with their condition, knowing that they are not fighting the battle alone.
“This app, to me, is very useful,” said Mdm Tan’s husband and caregiver, Andrew Quek, who has the app installed on his phone as well.
“Wherever you are in the world, you can still get in touch. You just call up, and [say] ‘Hey have you taken your medicine?’ That’s all.”
Patients can also keep a medical diary through the app, another feature which Mdm Tan finds very useful as she likes keeping a record of her condition after every checkup.
But not everyone is like Mdm Tan.
Dr Chua admits that since glaucoma is most common amongst those aged 50 and older, some may need some help with learning how to use the app.
“When we created [the app] we sort of wanted it for the younger generation in the future who are already more tech savvy,” said the consultant.
“For that group of older generation who aren’t so tech savvy, they probably have to depend on their children to help them out,” she acknowledged.
Dr Chua also agreed that there are limitations to the usefulness of the app, given that some glaucoma patients may have difficulty using the app due to loss of vision.
“It’s true, about 30 per cent to 40 per cent of glaucoma patients are blind in at least one eye. That’s unfortunate. If they are unable to see very well, then obviously they would have to get some help from their family members,” concluded Dr Chua.
Still, there is no doubt in the eyes of glaucoma sufferers and their care-givers that the MyEyeDrops app is anything but useful.
“When you’re blind at a very old age, can you imagine how difficult it is?” said Mr Quek, emphasising that glaucoma patients face challenges in performing many daily tasks, even those taken for granted, such as a visit to the toilet.
Stressing the importance of family support and assistance, the care-giver to his glaucoma sufferer wife pointed out: “When the patients go blind, the mobility is not there.”
“So as a caregiver, my suggestion is please help your parents, your grandparents, and you can reach them wherever you are.”