SUN project seeks to curb wave of UV eye problems

June 14, 2012

Amid new evidence that ultraviolet (UV) and high-energy visible (HEV) radiation pose a growing eye health problem, the ambitious new SUN Education Series, jointly developed by the AOA and the Opticians Association of America (OAA) with support from Luxottica and The Vision Council, seeks to avert a predicted upsurge in sight-robbing eye conditions through the use of protective outdoor eyewear.

“It is widely known that Americans are living longer than ever and, as a result, a substantial increase in age-related eye conditions is anticipated over the coming years,” notes John Lahr, O.D., SUN Education Series instructor. “Eye care professionals have long understood that UV and HEV are substantial causative factors for UV-related eye problems from eyelid cancers to cataract to retinal disease.

“However, even most eye care professionals are unaware that people today are exposed to more UV radiation over the course of their lives; resulting in even higher incidences of cataract, pterygium, pingueculum, macular degeneration, and UV keratoconjunctivitis, as well as greater severity of the conditions,” Dr. Lahr said.

“Moreover, few are aware of just how important a step as simple as the use of properly protective sunglasses or UV-blocking contact lenses could be in preventing these conditions and thereby helping to avert a costly burden on the national health system,” Dr. Lahr said.

The new SUN Education Series of online continuing education courses was developed as part of the AOA-OAA SUN Initiative, through which the two organizations and their industry partners hope to virtually eliminate age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cataract, and other UV- and HEV-related eye conditions as major health issues, according to Dr. Lahr (see AOA News, April).

“The key lies in optometrists, opticians, and their office staffs working together to effectively educate the public on the dangers of UV- and HEV-related eye conditions and then provide protective outdoor eyewear to prevent those conditions,” Dr. Lahr said.

Approved for credit by the Council on Optometric Practitioner Education (COPE) and the AOA Commission on Paraoptometric Certification (CPC), the three-part SUN online education series is now available to optometrists and paraoptometrics on the AOA EyeLearn™ continuing education Web portal. Also approved for credit by the American Board of Opticianry (ABO), the courses are available to opticians on the OAA site.

“SUN Education Series Part 1 — Protect,” introduced in April, describes the health issues resulting from UV and HEV radiation exposure, suggesting a set of steps practitioners can take to help ensure that all patients understand the importance of quality outdoor eye protection.

“SUN Education Series Part 2 — Prescribe,” introduced this month, outlines an “action plan” for the optometrist and the optician, said Dr. Lahr. For the optometrist, the course suggests ways to discuss research that demonstrates the need for sun protection. For the optician or paraoptometric, the course describes a methodology to identify the best protective products for a patient.

“SUN Education Series Part 3 — Present,” set for release in late summer, addresses “one of the most difficult areas for many offices to master – the language and methods to visually merchandise outdoor eyewear to every patient/ consumer,” Dr. Lahr said. “This segment presents methods to easily communicate the benefits of prescribing and dispensing outdoor eyewear.”

On average, older adults are experiencing greater lifetime exposure to UV than earlier generations, due to increased levels of UV reaching the earth’s surface, longer life expectancy, and an increase in activities in UV-intense environments, Dr. Lahr said.

Already, some 38 million Americans age 40 and older are blind or visually impaired or have AMD, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy or cataracts, Dr. Lahr said. As the population ages, that will rise to an estimated 50 million Americans by 2020, he adds.

The United States now spends more than $50 billion a year on vision problems—and the prevalence and the costs to care for these conditions are rising quickly, Dr. Lahr said.

Attempting to address rapidly rising health care costs, the nation’s health care system is placing increasing importance on prevention, Dr. Lahr said. Eye care can be no exception, he adds.

A recent Yale University Medcast outlined the threat UV and HEV pose to eye health and called for prevention to stave off a wave of costly age-related eye conditions caused by exposure to such radiation.

“Use of sunglasses that block all ultraviolet radiation and severely attenuate high-energy visible radiation will slow the pace of ocular deterioration and delay the onset of age-related disease, thereby reducing its prevalence. A 20-year delay would practically eliminate these diseases as significant causes of visual impairment in the United States,” concluded researcher R.W. Young M.D., in his 1992 study, “Sunlight and Age-Related Eye Disease,” in the Journal of the National Medical Association.

That conclusion is supported by widely cited research such as the Chesapeake Bay Waterman Study – which found men with double the normal exposure to UVB had a 60 percent increased prevalence of cortical cataracts – and the Beaver Dam Study – which found increased sun exposure in the teen and early adult years increased risk of early signs of AMD, Dr. Lahr said.

However, effective action by optometrists, opticians and paraoptometric will be essential is realizing the potential of protective outdoor eyewear to reduce instances of UV- and HEV-related eye conditions, Dr. Lahr emphasized.

While surveys find a high level of public awareness regarding the sun’s deleterious effect on skin, the public is not similarly aware of the sun’s effects on the eyes, Dr. Lahr said.

“Through this course, optometrists will learn the most up-to-date information on the effects of sunlight and radiation on the eye and adnexa, understand why prevention, as a method to prescribe, resonates with the consumer, and learn how to prescribe the right outdoor eyewear for the variety of patients encountered (i.e., adults, general use, kids, sports, seniors, etc.),” said Dr. Lahr, O.D.

In addition to enhancing the level of care provided to patients, counseling on UV- and HEV-related eye conditions can represent a sound practice management strategy, Dr. Lahr suggests.

“For years, practice management experts have wondered by optometrists are not dispensing more sunglasses through their practices. By learning to prescribe protective outdoor eyewear, optometrists can develop a new revenue stream while helping the nation to avoid a costly increase in serious eye conditions,” Dr. Lahr said.

The SUN Education Series, like all AOA EyeLearn ™ courses, is available free of charge to AOA members. Certificates will be issued to those who successfully complete all three of the series modules.

AOA members can access the EyeLearn™ education portal at www.aoa.org/eyelearn.

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