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Roff: Future is now for online health care

(Peter Roff) – The world is changing a lot faster than people can comprehend. The old ways are changing. They’re being replaced by Internet-based systems, the gig economy, and smart technology. For those on the cusp of this new economic order, that’s great news.

On the other hand, for those who’ve spent decades building out their space in the traditional marketplace, these new commercial spaces are a threat to their continued survival. As we saw when Borders lost out to, retailers and suppliers must successfully adapt or they will die.

Uber and Lyft have wreaked havoc on traditional taxi and limousine services. The big hotel chains are feeling the heat from Airbnb. Department stores are losing customers who now shop online on retail web sites. New technology is leading to the creation of start-ups faster than brick and mortar-based businesses can adapt, so the latter have started running to the government seeking protection against the competition.

No industry is safe, not even health care — something most people think requires face-to-face interaction between suppliers and consumers in order for treatments to be delivered effectively and efficiently.

In some cases that will probably be true always. No one is going to go to YouTube looking for a DIY video explaining how to remove an appendix or implant a pacemaker. But for other kids who do not require invasive procedures, the productivity gains made possible by the gig economy may lead to cost savings that, from the point of view of the patient, are well worth it.

For this reason, pushed on by industry giants and medical specialty cartels, regulators at the state and federal level are starting to take a close look at telemedicine, the generic name for the disruptive technology breaking new ground in the health care field. Smart technology apps like Opternative — which gives users a 25-minute “eye appointment” using their smartphones-and GlassesOn — which determines refractive error through the manipulation of light on a smartphone screen — have been shown to work just as effectively and accurately as traditional eye exams.

Thanks to the Internet and smart technology healthy adults can now go to the eye doctor just once every two years for a full exam rather than make repeated visit every time a lens needs to be changed or a prescription might need to be written.

This doesn’t sit well with the suppliers or the medical cartels who think they ought to be in charge of American eye care on a perpetual basis. Johnson & Johnson, which manufactures nearly 40 percent of the world’s contact lenses, along with the nation’s optometrists are not willing to adapt or accept the change. They’re making their presence known by trying to influence policymakers to prohibit citizens from making use of these smartphone apps.

Industry executives have already been to Capitol Hill to, as they put it, “deliver a message to Congress about eye care, patient safety and the importance of ‘in-person vision care’ provided by optometrists.” Legislators in Rhode Island and Connecticut have already given into protectionist pressure and introduced bills to protect the industry from competitors in the cost-cutting arena coming to be known as “ocular tele-health.” Meanwhile in South Carolina, then-Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed a bill that would have essentially prohibited most uses of ocular tele-medicine. “It uses health practice mandates to stifle competition for the benefit of a single industry,” she said, “putting us on the leading edge of protectionism, not innovation.”

Since they can’t argue the new technology’s efficacy or its ability to bring prices down, they’ve fallen back on claims that ocular tele-health is somehow unsafe. Advocating for new regulatory controls like the Contact Lens Consumer Health Protection Act, opponents of ocular telemedicine claim they’re only looking out for eye safety. As they see it, less frequent visits to an optometrists’ office induces a much higher risk of developing keratitis and other eye infections — though there’s little evidence to support this claim. It is, however, a helpful argument in favor of keeping things just as they are.

Ocular tele-medicine — especially smartphone prescription apps like Opternative — are disrupting the status quo, saving consumers time and money. Revolutionary technologies like these should be embraced, not blocked by protectionist government fiat. Fear mongers trying to outlaw their use are the equivalent of the candle makers who demanded, in Bastiat’s famous essay, the government do something about the sun because the daylight it provided amounted to unfair competition.

Peter Roff is a former senior political writer for UPI and a well-known commentator based in Washington, D.C. Email him at

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