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TACKLING THE COSTS OF WORSENING EYE HEALTH IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

 

Increasing numbers of people around the globe are developing eye problems, from eye strain to short sight, as well as more serious conditions such as glaucoma. But nowhere is this more pronounced than in Southeast Asia, where the population has always been genetically predisposed to short sight – or myopia to use its medical name.

Around 40% of Southeast Asians are myopic compared to around 30% of Western Europeans, according to a 2016 systematic review in US medical journal Ophthalmology. This is predicted to rise to 65% and 56% respectively by 2050.

But especially worrying is the high prevalence in the younger generations of some countries. A 2012 study by the Catholic University of Korea reported that myopia now affects an incredible 96% of 19 year-old male conscripts in Seoul.

A 2012 study by the Catholic University of Korea
reported that myopia now affects
an incredible 96% of 19 year-old male
conscripts in Seoul.

It’s a similar story in Singapore. Statistics from military research on men discovered that myopia rates went from 26% in the late 1970s to 83% in the late 1990s. And the percentage with severe short sight – a prescription of -6.00D or more – is 10%, compared with 2% in most Western populations.

This isn’t good news for anyone. Not only are glasses and contact lenses costly, severe short sight increases risk of a list of potentially sight-threatening conditions, including glaucoma, detached retina, cataracts and even blindness.

Inevitably, it also brings consequences for employers, from lowered productivity to rising health insurance costs. So it’s time to find solutions to counteract this growing problem.  

Why is it happening?

Experts agree that genetics cannot account for the rapid increases seen over the past couple of decades.

So what’s changed in our lifestyles and environments over the past 20 years or so? Obvious answers include intensive use of technology and increased time spent indoors. A 2015 report by the Electronic Transactions Development Agency shows that 23% of Thai people now spend between 42 and 77 hours on the internet each week. Similarly, a 2014 report by mobile advertising platform InMobi found that the average Indonesian spends 5.5 hours each day consuming media via smartphones, TVs and laptops. In Malaysia this figures jumps to 7.2 hours.

While researchers agree that this change in our lifestyle has played a role in the rising rates of myopia, it’s not totally clear why. One theory is that sustained close work could affect eye growth in children. Another, for which there is growing evidence, is that reduced exposure to natural daylight is a significant factor in children. Daylight is thought to stimulate the release of a chemical that blocks the elongation of the eye during development.

We are still in the early stages of understanding the impact our love of technology is having on our vision but what is clear is that as worsening eye health sweeps through Asia, it will bring financial implications.

Impact on finances

Vision problems can be expensive, as anyone who wears glasses or contact lenses will tell you. Added to that, there’s poor coverage of low vision health services in much of Southeast Asia, especially in rural areas, according to research at the University of Melbourne.

In many cases, the cost may fall on the individual or employer. And it follows that for employers, worsening eye health of staff could lead to increased insurance premiums. Analysis by KDD Health Solutions in the US shows that providing employees with regular eye exams can reduce these costs by 62%. Besides correcting vision and spotting sight-threatening conditions such as glaucoma, eye check-ups can highlight potentially serious but treatable conditions, including high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which are increasingly common around the globe.

Analysis by KDD Health Solutions in the
US shows that providing employees with
regular eye exams can reduce insurance costs by 62%.

Untreated eye problems can certainly impact work productivity. Vision difficulties at a computer can extend work time, increase mistakes and lead to a need for more breaks, especially in those experiencing eye strain. One study in 2004 by researchers at the Universities of Alabama and Ohio found that uncorrected vision problems decreased employee performance by up to 29%.

Overall, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that currently up to 0.73% of GDP is lost due to poor vision in some parts of Southeast Asia. And with more heavy computer use leading to more time indoors and more eye health problems, this is only likely to increase.  

Taking proactive steps to rectify the problem

It’s true that this must be a collaborative effort from all sectors of society, but as employers, there are key things we can do:

Encourage screen breaks: Educating employees on the need to take regular screen breaks to ease the strain placed on their eyes is a good start. This could actually improve productivity in the long run if it results in less eye strain.

In a 2015 study on 312 staff members at the Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University in Thailand, the average employee used a computer between six and ten hours each working day and reported regular eye strain, eye fatigue, sore eyes and irritation – all symptoms of digital eye strain – at least five to six times per week. Digital eye strain is caused by staring at a high-intensity light while focusing at a fixed length for an extended period.

Install correct lighting: Consider investing in anti-glare screens and providing adequate but not ultra-bright lighting. Too much light can cause glare on the computer screen, increasing risk of eye strain. So it’s worth providing blinds for windows and opting for daylight bulbs, which are less likely to cause eye strain than artificial fluorescent lights.

Workstation assessments: Providing workstation assessments for employees is also a good idea. Staff can be advised to adjust the brightness of their screens for optimum comfort, and to wear glasses rather than contact lenses at work. But assessments can also include advice on posture and positioning of chairs, keyboards and screens to help counteract common problems such as neck pain, backache and headaches.  

Staff can be advised to adjust the brightness
of their screens for optimum comfort,
and to wear glasses rather than contact lenses at work.

Providing regular eye checks: Finding a strategic insurance partner to offer comprehensive vision coverage can help keep costs under control in the long run. Given the savings to health costs mentioned earlier as a result of providing regular eye exams for employees, it’s a must to do this where possible. After all, in 2009 the WHO concluded that the burden of uncorrected poor eyesight has a potentially greater impact on the global economy than all other preventable vision disorders.

In the end, it’s about prevention

Along with these important areas that employers can influence, prevention and good eyecare should ideally start in childhood, with children encouraged to spend time away from screens and more time outdoors every day. This echoes advice from a government health campaign in Singapore back in the 1990s called ‘Go outdoors and play’, which was launched in response to the increase in myopia in military applicants.

Whether child or adult, going outside and taking a break is a key first step.

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Inova care is an industry leading consulting and health care administration company specializing in managed care, clinical pathways and cost containment solutions for corporations and insurance companies.

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