Employers looking for ways to improve worker health and lower costs are increasingly looking at a source hidden in plain view: vision health plans.
Enhanced communication between eye doctors and primary-care providers can result in earlier detection of common chronic conditions including diabetes and hypertension, experts say.
"A lot of employers are saying, 'How do I complete the circle," says Sandy Ageloff, health and group benefits leader at Towers Watson & Co. "Many vision vendors are happy to offer more coordinated information sharing."
Vision-care specialists can often spot signs of chronic disease before primary-care providers—especially since people are far more likely to get an annual eye exam than an annual physical, Ageloff and other say.
One leader in the area is VSP Global, which covers 58 million lives, Ageloff says. "VSP is very aggressive about this and in a good way," she adds.
The Rancho Cordova, California-based company has a "medical data collection tool" that provides aggregate data to employers about worker health conditions discovered during routine eye exams. Those data are compliant with federal privacy standards.
In addition, VSP works with employers to connect with employee health plans and disease management programs to reach out to individual members after a condition has been spotted at an eye exam. VSP coordinates with primary-care providers to offer additional health services to patients identified as having a chronic condition.
Susan Egbert, director of eye health strategies for VSP, said that VSP members are three times more likely to have an annual eye exam than an annual physical, and that point of contact can gather helpful information about an individual's health status.
"The eyes are the only place on the body where you can see blood vessels," Egbert says. "They are impacted by a number of health conditions."
Leaking or swelling of the eye blood vessels can indicate diabetes while an orange tinge to the vessels can be a sign of high cholesterol, she says. A peek at the eyes' blood vessels can also show symptoms of a brain tumor, high blood pressure and multiple sclerosis, she says.
"We see an opportunity to leverage the eye exam as part of an overall wellness program," Egbert says.
Indeed, a study conducted in 2011 indicated that 2.4 million people were identified as having a chronic disease after having a routine eye exam. Employers offering vision benefits saved $4.5 billion in health care costs because of early detection, according to the study conducted by the Human Capital Management Services Group, a consulting firm for VSP.
Eye doctors were first to detect signs of a chronic condition 65 percent of the time for high-cholesterol diagnoses, 20 percent of the time for diabetes and 30 percent of the time for hypertension. The study followed 200,000 VSP members without previous health conditions over a yearlong period.
The report also found that employers receive a 127 percent return on investment through early detection with eye exams.
Vision plans are also boosting follow up care for members with chronic conditions. EyeMed Vision Care, of Mason, Ohio, offers diabetic patients office visits every six months to monitor for signs of complications. Diabetes is a leading cause of adult blindness.
"Employers are looking for ways to manage their health care costs," says Towers Watson's Ageloff . Harnessing information from eye exams "is a way to identify health conditions and intervene earlier."
March 18, 2013
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
The symptoms that can be found via the eyes' blood vessels include: brain tumors, high blood pressure and multiple sclerosis.