Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in working-age Wisconsin adults. There are more than 135,000 people in Wisconsin with diabetes who are at risk. Early diagnosis and treatment decrease the risk of severe vision loss by 90 percent, but less than 70,000 Wisconsinites with diabetes receive yearly eye screening.

Dr. Yao Liu, assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences

Dr. Yao Liu, assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, is working to change these startling statistics. Liu, a recipient of a 2015 New Investigator Program award from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, has embarked on a research project aimed at increasing access to screening and improving eye screening rates in underserved, rural Wisconsin communities.

Liu, a UW Health ophthalmologist, practices at Mile Bluff Medical Center in Mauston, Wisconsin, where she uses telemedicine to screen for signs of diabetic retinopathy. Patients with diabetes can obtain eye photos from a retinal camera whose digital images are securely sent to UW-Madison where eye specialists review them for early signs of damage to the retina.

We want to determine, in partnership with patients, primary care providers, and staff, what the ideal methods are to increase eye screening and reduce blindness in our community.

This walk-in service is highly valuable for patients with diabetes in whom early detection can prevent severe vision damage, and is especially valuable to residents of rural communities who have less access to care and greater distances to travel to obtain screenings.

“Severe vision loss from diabetic retinopathy in patients with diabetes can largely be prevented through screening,” said Liu. “However, many people don’t have easy access to a dilated eye exam. By having this camera available, we can increase screening rates, and decrease blindness.”

In her research study funded by the Wisconsin Partnership Program, patients will be screened at Mile Bluff Medical Center and will be interviewed to determine reasons why people do or do not obtain eye screening.

“We will test different interventions to increase eye screening,” Liu said. “We want to determine, in partnership with patients, primary care providers, and staff, what the ideal methods are to increase eye screening and reduce blindness in our community.”

Patients with diabetes can obtain eye photos from a retinal camera. The images can be reviewed by eye specialists for early signs of damage to the retina.

Her findings will identify barriers and facilitators to the use of tele-ophthalmology as well as develop and test interventions to overcome identified barriers to this service. Ultimately, the project’s goal is to reduce vision loss from diabetic retinopathy in communities that currently have limited access to eye screening.

Collaborators in this research project include Dr. Maureen Smith, Director of the UW Health Innovation Program, Dr. Timothy Bjelland, Chief Medical Officer of the Mile Bluff Medical Center, and staff members Michel Messer and Penny Wachowiak.

The Wisconsin Partnership Program’s New Investigator Program helps promising researchers at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health take innovative approaches to address Wisconsin's public health issues. Established in 2004, the Wisconsin Partnership Program has awarded more than $180 million in 400 research, education and community health initiative grants aimed at improving the health of Wisconsin residents