A smartphone app, called Peek, has seen immense success in preventing blindness among Kenyans thanks to doctors’ breakthrough ability to perform mobile eye exams without the use of professional ophthalmoscopes.

Experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) have spent five years developing the technology that provides the on-site eye exam. The app, which project leader Dr. Andrew Bastawrous calls his “Eye-Phone,” works with a special lens attached to the smartphone that can scan a person’s retina and provide a magnified picture of the eye. Such an exam has sweeping benefits for the entire country of Kenya, which Bastawrous says is in dire need of optical health.

"Kenya was a natural test location," Bastawrous told Agence France-Presse. "For a country with a population of more than 40 million, there are only 86 qualified eye doctors, 43 of whom are operating in the capital Nairobi."

Bastawrous and his team have developed the Nakuru Eye Disease Cohort Study, a comprehensive mission to provide Peek’s service to people all around Kenya, many of whom are stranded outside city limits and cannot afford to travel for health care. Some 5,000 people have already benefitted from the app’s capabilities.

Peek has several components that allow researchers — and future consumers, the team hopes — to perform tests without standard requirements. Traditional eye exams, for instance, test a person’s vision by asking the individual to read increasingly smaller lines of letters. This presupposes the patient can read, or at least read English. Bastawrous’s app asks patients only to discern the orientation of a letter E; whether they know it’s an E is irrelevant.

“If you’ve got normal vision, it gets the result very quickly,” Bastawrous said in a recent LSHTM podcast. “What we’ve developed is an algorithm where you don’t spent too much time on people with good vision, but it spends more time on people with poor vision.”

Peek also enables trained specialists to scan for cataracts and retinal damage on the back of the eye. Solar-powered charging packs allow the phones to function in remote settings that have no electricity, Bastawrous added. The team has successfully diagnosed ailments such as glaucoma, cataracts, myopia, and far-sightedness.

Treatment proves somewhat more difficult, as only 200 of the 5,000 patients have received corrective surgery — the primary obstacle being location. The nearest large town, Nakuru, offers eye surgery at its hospital once every two weeks. It’s during this window when patients can receive eyeglasses, eye drops, or more complex procedures.

Cataracts remain the largest cause of blindness around the world (47.9 percent of blindness cases), and the majority of cases take place in underdeveloped countries, like Kenya, which have minimal to zero access to viable health care. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 285 million people worldwide who have impaired vision. Of those, 39 million are blind. Bastawrous believes preventative measures — like those championed by Peek — can help to reduce this total immensely.

“We’ve got scientific evidence that it changes practice and that it increases access to healthcare,” he said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do in Kenya at the moment.”