Computers take strain out of testing

Many optometrists regard school eye tests as a notoriously poor indicator of visual problems. Standards vary widely, and in the worst cases a dodgy chart is hung up at the end of a corridor and the children become familiar with the letters while filing past. Parents get a letter saying their child's eyesight is normal, but such reassurances can be dangerous. The test may not pick up eye disease or binocular vision problems, where the two eyes don't work well together.

However, the City University Vision Screener for Schools, designed by Dr David Thomson, senior lecturer in the university's Department of Optometry, could change all that. It is a computer programme devised to pick up visual defects that might affect the education or development of the child, such as squints (which need to be picked up as early as possible to stand any chance of successful treatment), refractive errors like short-sightedness or long-sightedness (which might result in blurred vision or headaches) and colour vision defects (many learning schemes are colour-coded).

The child and parent fill in a questionnaire, which asks about the family's history of eye problems, as well as checking for symptoms such as headaches or sore eyes. The results are entered into a computer and the program generates a series of vision tests, including a conventional letter chart, a test for colour, and a test to see how well the eyes work together.

The computer will produce a provisional diagnosis and print out a customised letter for parents, a referral letter for a doctoroptometrist, and a report for the school. It's designed to be used by people with little specialist knowledge of eyes, such as school nurses. Initial results are promising, showing fewer errors than with conventional screening. The system will be tested on 4,000 children in north London this autumn and Thomson expects it to be commercially available from next spring.

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