Diabetes and Eye Health: Making the Connection

With early detection and screening Kaiser Permanente is helping our members control the risk factors that cause diabetic retinopathy, a leading cause of blindness.

Feature Story
Senior patient having his his eyes examined by an optometrist.

If you have diabetes, you are at risk of diabetic retinopathy and blindness — even if your blood sugar is under good control.

That’s why Kaiser Permanente wants to make it quick and convenient for you to get your eyes screened every two years, as recommended.

Over time, diabetes weakens the blood vessels in the retina, the nerve layer that lines the back of your eye and “takes pictures” to send to your brain. This can lead to diabetic retinopathy, which is the leading cause of blindness for people aged 20 to 74.

Early detection Is key

“The most important thing about diabetic retinopathy is that if we catch it in the early stages and treat it, then we can reduce its effect on vision,” said Marlaina Watkins, OD, director of Kaiser Permanente’s virtual care and eye monitoring program. “By the time there’s enough damage to make your vision blurry, the diabetic retinopathy is much harder to control.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 30 million people in the U.S. have diabetes. Retinopathy will develop sooner when diabetes is poorly controlled, and the biggest risk factor is how long someone has had the disease.

When caught early, laser treatment is usually successful. Injections or surgery may be necessary for more advanced retinopathy.

“Even under good control, if someone has had diabetes for many years, they’ll start to see some damage in the blood vessels of the eye,” Watkins said.

Prevention through screening

To screen for retinopathy, a doctor looks at the back of the eye. The screening is part of a comprehensive eye exam that many Kaiser Permanente members routinely have to update their glasses or contact lens prescriptions.

“We have found it has been particularly difficult for working-age adults with diabetes to come in for the screening. They don’t have time for a full eye exam,” Watkins said.

Kaiser Permanente offers another option for members who are pressed for time. They can walk in without an appointment at any medical office that has an eye department for screening. A technician will take a photograph of the back of the eye to be reviewed by a doctor. It doesn’t require that your eyes be dilated, and it’s free for most members.

“It’s quick and people can fit it in to their lifestyle more easily,” Watkins said. “It’s about patient choice, convenience, and ultimately, preventing blindness.”