Commentary: Using Virtual Reality to Cure Blindness

Jan. 26, 2016

When I think about cataract surgery, the first thing that comes to mind is a simple procedure available practically anywhere. Unfortunately, that is only true in countries with adequate access to health care services. People living in third-world countries and remote regions have limited, if any, opportunity of even seeing an ophthalmologist or any type of eye care professional. Simply put, a cataract is a clouding of the lens that can impair someone’s vision. Sadly, this causes many people in the developing world to unnecessarily lose their sight. Over 20 million people are affected by cataracts, and according to the Rand Corporation, another 12 million will be affected by 2020.

The alarming statistics of those losing their sight due to cataracts in underdeveloped nations were shocking to say the least, and maybe it’s because I’m fortunate to live in a country where most patients with cataracts have immediate access to the latest developments in medicine. Typically, someone with cataracts can go to their eye doctor and take care of this problem in a matter of days or weeks. Unfortunately, many people in third-world countries will never have access to a general care doctor, let alone a cataract surgeon.

Several nonprofit organizations hope to reduce these numbers by teaching aspiring doctors in underdeveloped nations simple but effective cataract removal procedures. HelpMeSee and Cure Blindness are two such organizations, and both plan to teach medical students and doctors cataract surgery using different virtual reality methods. They hope that by combining this technology with hands-on experience, more physicians will be trained in these simple but important procedures. Most importantly, they hope to make the difference in the lives of countless individuals by preventing blindness and even restoring their sight.

As a long time technology user, I admit I’ve reached a point where I take these tools for granted. Of course, the fact that I’m blind allows me to appreciate the independence it gives me, but I rarely think about how it can help those who don’t have access to even basic medical care and other necessities. Learning about how these two nonprofits are using virtual reality to help cure a basic ailment really puts things into perspective. I am once again amazed at how modern technology can be used to help those in need have a better quality of life.

In contrast, not everyone utilizes technology to benefit mankind. All too often, the media reports stories about hackers and how they threaten our safety and security in today’s technologically driven world. I sure am glad to learn that others are using technology for what I think was its initial purpose: to make our lives better and easier. I find it extremely unfortunate and even disturbing that so many people with cataracts are still losing their sight unnecessarily. On the other hand, virtual reality and other technological and medical innovations give us all hope that these individuals will one day see a brighter future.

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