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Online Eye Exam Site Makes Waves In Eye Care Industry

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A startup called Opternative offers online vision tests using a computer and a smartphone.

All sorts of health information is now a few taps away on your smartphone, from how many steps you take — to how well you sleep at night. But what if you could use your phone and a computer to test your vision? A company is doing just that — and eye care professionals are upset. Some states have even banned it.

A Chicago-based company called Opternative offers the test. The site asks some questions about your eyes and overall health; it also wants to know your shoe size to make sure you're the right distance from your computer monitor. You keep your smartphone in your hand and use the Web browser to answer questions about what you see on the computer screen.

Like a traditional eye test, there are shapes, lines and letters. It takes about 30 minutes.

"We're trying to identify how bad your vision is, so we're kind of testing your vision to failure, is the way I would describe it," says Aaron Dallek, CEO of Opternative.

Dallek co-founded the company with an optometrist, who was searching for ways to offer eye exams online.

"Me being a lifetime glasses and contact wearer, I was like 'Where do we start?' So, that was about 3 1/2 years ago, and we've been working on it ever since," Dallek says.

He says 65,000 patients have signed up for the test. It's free but costs $40 to have a doctor in the person's home state review the online results and email a prescription for glasses or contacts.

Eye care professionals, like Atlanta optometrist Minty Nguyen, have concerns. She took the test and likes that it asks patients health questions. But she says there's no substitute for going to an eye doctor.

"And again, it's not for me to make any more money as an optometrist. It just kind of encourages patients to neglect the health portion of their exam, which is key," she says. "You don't want to go blind. It's one of your most important senses."

Eye health exams look for problems like glaucoma and cataracts.

Opternative is available in at least 34 states. But the company is under scrutiny. This year, Indiana outlawed the test and Michigan sent the company a cease-and-desist order.

Earlier this month, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a law to ban the test here. The sponsor, state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, ridiculed Opternative while speaking to a House committee.

"They're required to use their computer and measure a certain distance away from their computer using their shoe. That's why the company claims for the exam to be accurate. That's fairly difficult to believe," he said. "I think our trained optometric doctors under their current protocols and our ophthalmologists go a little bit further than the shoe standard."

Dallek says the company was never meant to replace a full eye exam. But he says state lawmakers shouldn't decide who gets to take medical tests.

"We recommend patients get a comprehensive eye health exam every two years, and for some people maybe they choose to get it less often, but that's their choice. That's part of the free market, for patients to be able to kind of choose what's best for them," he says.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology says the test may be suitable for 18- to 39-year-olds who just want to update their prescription, but only as a complement to regular visits with an eye doctor.

The American Optometric Association has asked the Food and Drug Administration to pull Opternative off the market.

Copyright 2016 Georgia Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Georgia Public Broadcasting.

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