TAMPA — Just yards from an aisle stocked with baby shampoo and diapers, David Bredahl sits in a small darkened room inside his local CVS store.
Diagnosed with diabetes when he was 13, Bredahl is now 68. His retinas bear scars from the laser surgeries needed to correct the damage that high blood sugar levels have wreaked on the tiny blood vessels that connect to light-sensitive tissue at the back of his eyes.
Diabetics are told to get their eyes checked once a year. For Bredahl, that used to mean spending hours at an eye clinic close to the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus, where ophthalmologists would dilate his eyes with tropicamide drops, leaving his vision blurry for hours.
On Friday, all it took was a short drive to the CVS store at 8801 W Linebaugh Ave. No eye drops were needed. Bredahl was done in little more than 20 minutes.
The pharmacy in Westchase has been chosen as the pilot site for a new concept: An in-store eye clinic designed to make screening faster and more convenient. The clinic includes a device that can diagnose diabetic retinopathy and macular edema, a common eye disorder among those over 50, within five minutes.
Known as IDx-DR, the device takes images of the retina and uses artificial intelligence software to look for lesions and other signs of damage. Patients do not have to get their eyes dilated before using it.
The clinic is run by Network Eye, a startup company whose founders include Tampa Bay ophthalmologist David Eichenbaum. They hope to reach and care for people who skip eye screenings either because they don’t have health insurance, or are reluctant or unable to devote several hours to an appointment with an eye doctor.
Early treatment of diabetic retinopathy can significantly reduce the risk of vision loss. But as many as half of the nation’s 30 million diabetics do not get regular eye examinations, according to a study published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. Those percentages rise among lower income households and communities of color.
Placing a clinic in a pharmacy puts preventative care directly into the community, Eichenbaum said. People will run across it as they go about their everyday lives.
The medical firm has also equipped a mobile lab that will be towed around Tampa Bay to bring vision screenings to neighborhoods. Residents will be able to use the mobile unit without appointments, and their five-minute checkups will produce instant results from clinical staffers on board.
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“We think that taking this technology and putting it into communities will improve the access and the availability to that uncared for ... marginalized population,” he said.
The cost of screening is typically covered by insurance. The clinic charges about $45 to those who have no insurance.
When screenings uncover eye problems, an ophthalmologist will be available in the store for follow-up treatments, including eye injections.
Network Eye executives convinced their CVS counterparts to lease the space in the store and expect to expand the program to other CVS stores across the country. They have already signed agreements with ophthalmologists in other major cities.
Network Eye Executive Chairman Steve Wisch expects more health care will migrate to pharmacy stores and other retail settings. In recent years CVS introduced HealthHubs at many of its stores where customers can access treatment for issues like strep throat and ear infections.
The pandemic has further accelerated that trend with pharmacies playing a critical role in providing COVID-19 vaccinations and tests to the public. Adding more services makes sense, Wisch said, as it potentially brings more customers though the doors at a time when retailers face strong competition from online shopping.
“All the retailers are looking for more foot traffic,” he said. “You’ll get your prescriptions; you might buy stuff from the front of the store. That makes a lot of sense from a retailer perspective.”
The clinic at Westchase had a soft opening in early January but will have an official opening on Tuesday. Located close to the in-store pharmacy desk, the clinic has a Network Eye sign and logo on a wall and a sign on a door that states “Get your 5-minute diabetes eye test today.” The store also relocated its eye-care products adjacent to the clinic.
“By offering convenient access to specialized retina care in a HealthHUB location, we believe that more patients will be screened annually and will receive follow-up treatment, if required, leading to healthier outcomes,” said CVS spokesperson Amy Thibault in an email.
The clinic should prove to be a valuable resource for diabetics and others living in the Tampa Bay area, said Ben Milson, a board member of the local chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 24 years ago and has an insulin pump is always attached to his waist. He plans to use the clinic for his next eye exam.
“Not taking care of untreated diabetes can lead to amputation and blindness,” he said. “We’re in a society where everything is easy. You can click two buttons and have a car delivered. This makes getting your eyes checked pretty convenient.”