Peng Yong Sim: Is there a future for direct ophthalmoscopy?

Since its invention in 1851, the direct ophthalmoscope has offered unprecedented diagnostic capabilities. Through it, the mysteries of the inner eye were unravelled and the links between eye manifestations and systemic diseases have been revealed.

As a diagnostic tool it has been almost as important as the stethoscope: from the first time retinal detachment was seen in 1853 to the first viewings of central retinal occlusion in 1855 and papilloedema in 1860.1

Unfortunately, over recent decades there has been a decline in ophthalmology teaching at medical school level, and reduced direct ophthalmoscopy proficiency in both medical students and non-ophthalmologist doctors.2

These factors, alongside technical difficulty and the considerable price tag of an ophthalmoscope, have led to a general lack of confidence in direct ophthalmoscopy across the medical profession.3,4 There is even evidence suggesting that direct ophthalmoscopy performed by ophthalmologists is inadequate for screening of common eye diseases like diabetic retinopathy.5

Most of my peers–myself included–have had minimal, if any, exposure to direct ophthalmoscopy throughout our training. Any pursuit for further practice has been dependent on self-motivation. And even then, most of it has been under the supervision of GPs and emergency medicine doctors, the majority of whom admit a lack of proficiency in direct ophthalmoscopy themselves.

There are different views on the role of direct ophthalmoscopy within the ophthalmology community6,7 but I believe that this basic skill is crucial, especially as our health service is under increasing financial pressure. For example, the ability to triage, signpost, and refer patients appropriately–for which direct ophthalmoscopy is essential–reduces demand on hospital eye services and promotes more efficient use of precious resources.

Technological development in the last decade has allowed, not only the availability of low cost ophthalmoscopes,8,9 but the emergence of several new alternatives–such as nonmydratic fundus photography10,11 and smartphone ophthalmoscopy12-14–which could help preserve the art of direct ophthalmoscopy. It is time my generation of digital doctors embraced such innovations and made the inner eye less mysterious once again.

Not commissioned, peer reviewed.

Peng Yong Sim is a FY2 in ophthalmology at West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust.

Competing interests: None declared


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