Dr. Ciku Mathenge, medical advisor for Orbis International, conducts a vision screening in Kigali, Rwanda. The exam is part of a new research study that found diabetic retinopathy screenings supported by artificial intelligence enhance patients' speed and uptake of referral services. Image courtesy of Nimu Mathenge/Orbis

NEW YORK—Orbis International announced new research findings demonstrating that diabetic retinopathy screenings supported by artificial intelligence (AI) enhanced patients' speed and uptake of referral services in Rwanda, which can help reduce vision loss due to diabetes in the region. The study is the first globally that explores the use of AI for diabetic retinopathy and referral uptake and also includes results that are broadly applicable across other settings for AI-supported diabetic retinopathy screenings.

The study is published in a special issue of Ophthalmology Science on big data and artificial intelligence in ophthalmic research.

"The number of people living with diabetes is growing rapidly worldwide, with the largest projected increase in Africa at an estimated 143 percent by 2045. Unfortunately, screening programs for diabetes-related vision loss are often difficult to implement effectively in low-resource settings," said Dr. Ciku Mathenge, medical advisor for Orbis International and the study's principal investigator. "Our research findings prove that integrating cutting-edge technology such as artificial intelligence into diabetic retinopathy screenings is not only feasible, but is also an effective solution for identifying those at risk and improving access to care for those with the disease, even in the most vulnerable communities."

The study looked at whether the use of Orbis's Cybersight AI tool to detect diabetic retinopathy in images taken of the eye during routine screenings would lead to patients' increased uptake of diabetic retinopathy referral services. The screenings were conducted in partnership with the Rwandan International Institute of Ophthalmology (RIIO) at four diabetes clinics in and around Kigali, Rwanda, in 2021. Participants, who were recruited during routine visits to the diabetologist, had been diagnosed with type 1 or 2 diabetes and were aged 18 years or older.

The research found that patients who received immediate feedback about their condition based on AI-supported screenings were more likely to go to recommended follow-up appointments than those who received referrals only after a human grading report was completed, a process that can take several days. Potential reasons for this were attributed to a few factors:

Immediate feedback provides an opportunity for eyecare teams to educate a patient about the importance of follow-up care just after a patient learns about their condition.

Immediate feedback also provides an opportunity for patients requiring referrals to potentially visit the ophthalmologist on the same day, minimizing the need for additional travel for an appointment. Receiving an instant report that included images of the retina—a visual reminder of one's condition—may have also supported acceptance of the recommended referral, especially for patients that are asymptomatic.

The newly published research was funded in part thanks to Dr. Mathenge's receipt of a Roche Collaborative Research Fellowship from the Association for Research and Vision in Ophthalmology (ARVO). The Fellowship pairs early career researchers from developing countries with collaborating scientists in well-established research laboratories with the aim of strengthening ophthalmic research capacities worldwide.