One in the eye for blindness: the free app that thinks it's an eye doctor

Above: Dr Hong Sheng Chiong demonstrates the OphthalmicDocs Fundus at TEDx Auckland
A Kiwi eye specialist has invented a simple tool that turns a smartphone into a diagnostic tool – and now it has won the People's Choice Award at this year's Innovators Awards.

In early May, ophthalmologist Dr Hong Sheng Chiong released a cunning 3D printable gadget that turns a smartphone into a retinal camera for eye examinations. Twenty four hours later, he woke to 150 emails. 

Another three days, and there had been more than a thousand downloads of his adapter, the OphthalmicDocs Fundus.

It hadn’t cost anyone (except him) a penny. And that’s just how Hong likes it.

By day, Hong runs the eye clinic at Gisborne Hospital. But in his spare time, he is working towards a wider goal: giving doctors in the third world the tools to detect – and therefore treat – preventable blindness. 

The OphthalmicDocs Fundus (OphthalmicDocs is the name of Hong’s company; fundus is a scientific name for the retina) is a 3D printable gadget; basically a small arm which holds a condensing lens at one end and attaches to the camera part of a smartphone at the other. 

It turns a mobile phone into a retinal camera, which can look into the back of the eye, the most difficult area to view.

Combined with the OphthalmicDocs Eye App, free eye-testing software containing tests and imaging, the camera puts a portable eye clinic in the hands of a doctor. 

Hong says even eye charts on the wall of a clinic can cost thousands of dollars, so he’s converted all the basic vision tests into a smartphone-friendly app format. 

Hong believes he has built the first, free, open-source eye equipment in the world. 

And that’s just how he likes it too. 

Now he’s calling on users around the world to send back suggestions for design improvements, which can be included in the next iteration. 3D models can be submitted now via the company’s website.

“We believe everyone deserves access to quality eye care," says Dr Chiong. "It’s supposed to be cheap, to help people in developing nations. So why would you put a label on it or mark up the price by 300-400%? Those things really make me sick.”

Born in Borneo, Hong did his medical degree and first round of postgraduate training in Ireland, and then headed to Kenya, Nepal and Malaysia before moving to New Zealand. He says working in the third world involved challenges he had never anticipated. 

“In developed nations, when you’re doing all these conventional eye examinations, you take the equipment for granted. But when I was in those [developing] countries I realised that people are trying their best to care for the patient but they just don’t have the right equipment or the right tools.”

So after finishing his Postgraduate Diploma in Ophthalmology at Otago University, Hong and his team (an eye specialist, a product designer, a medical engineer and an IT specialist) developed eye exam gear fitting three criteria: affordability, accessibility, and accuracy.

Hong says while charities often donate expensive equipment (one camera can cost  $20,000), the risk is that if funding stops or volunteers are no longer available, communities are again left to fend for themselves.

Meanwhile, traditional ophthalmic equipment is often bulky and hard to transport to people in remote communities.

“That’s why I decided to create a system that’s accurate, portable, affordable and accessible, so that people in those places, all they need to do is pack all those things in a backpack and they can do the basic eye examinations that they need.”

Accurate diagnosis is the crucial first step to finding the right treatment, he says. 

“In a primary or rural setting where you’re a normal GP or emergency physician, not an eye-doctor, and you haven’t got access to any of this eye equipment, how could you make a diagnostic judgment on a patient?”

Earlier this year Hong went back to Borneo to test out his ideas.

“I saw about 15 people, villagers and some family friends, and I managed to pick up at least three or four cataracts and a blinding corneal condition as well.”

He’s also used his baby as a test subject – much to his wife’s initial trepidation. 

“I was trying to see if it could work on that specific situation, because if you’re looking at babies and kids it is almost impossible to bring them up to the microscope in the eye clinic.”

Hong has also provided many Kiwi GPs with the equipment, as he says it improves the referral system in New Zealand.

Now the team has a further 10 things it is working on, including a microscope to look at the front of the eye, further tests within the app and a virtual headset.

Last week OphthalmicDocs won the People's Choice Award at the New Zealand Innovators Awards 2015

"This is a brilliant concept," said the judges, "putting together a unique combination of open source 3D printing capability with an app. It has the potential to transform preventative eye care."