3D eye tech social enterprise giving gift of sight

By Jamie Joseph

Dr Hong is interviewed about his 3D printed eye camera at TEDxAuckland.
Dr Hong is interviewed about his 3D printed eye camera at TEDxAuckland.

Dr Hong Sheng Chiong's talk at TEDxAuckland last month was met with a standing ovation. Yet what he had to say is really just the beginning of an open-source journey to end preventable blindness globally; and it begins with a life-changing invention designed especially for those living in poverty.

There are 285 million people who are visually impaired; 39 million are legally blind, with 90% of them living in developing countries, of which 80% are suffering from preventable blindness. The young doctor's exposure to third world medicine in Kenya, Nepal and Malaysia gave him insight into the burden of preventable blindness.

Says Dr Hong, "We are living in an unbalanced world, where the rich can afford health care and the poor are being ignored. No one deserves to be blind if it's preventable."
One of the major problems lies in the access to affordable eye equipment. A simple 'fundus' camera to look at the back of the eye costs more than $20,000, a microscope to look at the front of the eye costs at least $15,000.

The last few years have seen rapid advances in mobile technology, and doctors have increasingly been using this technology in patient care and various medical specialties.

Ophthalmology, the branch of medicine that deals with the anatomy, physiology and diseases of the eye, is not far behind in entering this golden era of mobile. Last year, Dr Hong and his team of five set out to develop a smartphone-based application that would enable doctors to check eyes for initial signs of preventable complications. To decrease the number of variables that can prevent steady scanning, they began exploring the possibility of a 3D-printed adaptor that can be attached to a smartphone. The first prototype allowed for a 40-degree field of view of the retina - comparable to most professional 'fundus' cameras.

After nine months of R&D, the OphthalmicDocs' Fundus was born, consisting of a smartphone, a basic lens and an adaptor. For $50 they had created an alternative to a device that costs upwards of $16,000. Viewing the retina has never been easier, and they've made the 3D printable parts for the OphthalmicDocs Fundus downloadable for free. They are not the first in the world to have created a mobile device to view the retina, but they are the first to create an open-source approach.

Says Hong: "Our aim is to turn our endeavour into a social enterprise, which means it should be self-sustainable and generating its own revenue. To do that we have created the 3D models, making it free so that people in the developing nations can benefit, but the developed nations have the option to pay. Within the first few days of launching in May, we had over 1000 downloads of the 3D printable files, and $2000 worth of sales. Plus we've had orders for lenses and bolts and nuts that are not 3D printable."

Hong points out that they are not trying to sell any devices or become a distributor. They just want to solve problems, but by making a small profit they can continue to fund the community. Right now their team of five is each contributing 20 hours a week, and no one is getting paid. The long-term plan is to bring on board a like-minded investor to make it more sustainable, but still keep it open-source and affordable.

Says Dr Hong, "Teleophthalmology has great potential, especially in developing countries where quality, access and affordability in healthcare are huge issues. It eliminates the need to travel and provides patients living in remote areas the opportunity for specialist care. "

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