Study shows steep inequality in usage of low vision devices

Blacks and Hispanics who have trouble seeing are missing out on the low vision technology that can help them read, drive and keep up social connections.

The devices are considered game-changers for the visually impaired, but a University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center study shows a steep inequality in usage of low vision devices proven to improve functioning and quality of life.

Low-vision device users were more likely to be older and white compared to those who did not use the devices, according to the study published in JAMA Ophthalmology.

Compared to white adults age 65 and older, the odds of using a low vision device were 17% lower in black adults and 47% lower among Hispanics.

"Low vision services can improve quality of life and the ability of patients to do important everyday activities. However, ensuring equitable access to these services is a major challenge," says senior study author Joshua Ehrlich, M.D., MPH, an ophthalmologist at Kellogg Eye Center and eye policy researcher at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

Low vision devices such as magnifiers can help with reading cell phones and restaurant menus, telescopic lenses can keep them in the driver's seat and special glasses can be programmed to read out loud and recognize faces.

However Medicare does not cover the cost of the devices, which is much like its policy of limited coverage of eyeglasses.

For the study, researchers at Kellogg and Harvard Medical School focused on nationally representative survey data from about 3,000 Medicare beneficiaries 65 years and older who reported vision impairment.

The authors found that compared with white individuals, adults from minority racial/ethnic groups were less likely to report using low-vision devices. However, they found no difference in the use of vision rehabilitation, an evaluation of activities of daily living and implementation of a plan to improve functioning – a service that is covered by Medicare.

If the findings are confirmed, it may suggest that policy makers could consider coverage of low vision devices under Medicare to address racial disparities.

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