Seeing smart: transforming emerging-market eye care

Ophthalmologist turned innovator Dr Andrew Bastawrous shares how smartphones are helping hundreds of thousands of people see again

Our avoidable blindness programme, Seeing is Believing, is searching for the next revolution in eye-health care, offering grants to innovators who can help eliminate preventable blindness in developing countries. Here, one of the grant winners – Dr Andrew Bastawrous – tells us how his team came up with their life-changing idea.

How are you using your Seeing is Believing Innovation Fund grant?

We’re scaling up a programme we ran as a trial in Kenya (supported by Seeing is Believing) into a county-wide programme, and starting a trial in India. In the trial, we trained teachers to screen children’s vision using a smartphone app, called Peek, invented together with a brilliant team of field workers, developers, engineers and ophthalmologists. In less than two weeks, 25 teachers screened almost 21,000 children during the Kenya trial and found 900 with vision problems. Using the huge amount we learnt from this, we are now working with partners in Kenya (Operation Eyesight Universal and the Trans Nzoia Ministries of Health and Education) to improve the Peek technology, screen 300,000 children and provide treatment for those found with eye problems. Ultimately, we want to reach and support as many visually impaired people as possible.

You are clearly passionate about eliminating avoidable blindness, why?

I wasn’t doing particularly well at school when my parents dragged me to get my eyes tested, and I was told I was short-sighted. After much persuasion (aged 12 and difficult), I put on my first pair of glasses. I was completely amazed at the world I’d been missing out on. I remember so vividly looking at a huge oak tree and seeing leaves! From that point on, I began to perform much better at school. I was aware that had I been born into different circumstances, such a simple intervention as a pair of glasses that transformed my life wouldn’t have been possible. That struck me as deeply unfair and I resolved to do something to change the situation.

How did you come up with your idea to screen people using a smartphone? 

In 2012, my wife, my son and I moved to Kenya as part of my PhD with the International Centre for Eye Health. I led the follow-up of a major eye disease study of 5,000 people in 100 different locations across the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. 15 of us, in two vans, were seeking to carry out high-quality eye examinations. It was really challenging as many places had no roads or electricity and we were lugging around expensive and fragile equipment. We saw lots of people who were suffering from preventable/treatable eye diseases. Despite the poor infrastructure, nearly all of the locations where we ran clinics had good phone signal. So we developed a suite of smartphone-based tests (the Peek app) for non-specialists to perform, in the hope that more high-risk individuals could be reached and treated.

What is the key to ending avoidable blindness for good?

I don’t think there is one solution. There will be many and they will change over time. The key will be working together, across government, non-governmental organisations and public and private sectors with a common goal, and not slowing down till we get there.

What is your one tip for someone like yourself – an innovator with an idea to help change lives?

Surround yourself with good people who share the same vision and don’t worry about failing.

Dr Andrew Bastawrous and the Peek team is one of the twelve winners to receive a grant from Seeing is Believing’s latest wave of innovation funding. Click here to meet the other winning innovators.