Online contact lens buyers may put eyes at risk
By Amy Norton
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People who buy contact lenses online may be less careful about their eye health than those who buy from their doctors, a new study suggests.
Researchers' survey results of 151 contact lens wearers suggested that those who bought their lenses online or at a store were less likely to follow certain recommendations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on contact safety.
Lens wearers who bought from their doctor were, for example, more likely to have had an eye exam in the past year or to have their doctors make sure their prescription was filled accurately and that the lenses fit properly.
The findings suggest that some consumers are putting their eye health at risk, the researchers report in the journal Optometry.
More and more people are getting their contact lenses from Internet vendors, often because it is less expensive and more convenient than purchasing from an eye doctor.
The new study is the first to look at whether people who buy lenses online differ in their eye care practices, according to Dr. Joshua Fogel, lead researcher.
"There's a huge market out there for it," said Fogel, of Brooklyn College in New York. "The key question is -- how does it affect their eye care?"
The point is not to discourage people from buying lenses online, he noted. "I think consumers should be able to purchase them from different places," he told Reuters Health.
But they should try to follow the FDA recommendations when they do so, Fogel said, and Web sites, stores, doctors and regulators should work together to help ensure consumers' safety.
A U.S. regulation called the Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act requires that eye doctors release prescription information at no charge so that consumers can buy their lenses wherever they choose.
It also allows for "passive prescription verification," Fogel pointed out. This means that when a lens vendor asks a doctor to verify a consumer's prescription, the seller can consider the prescription valid if the doctor does not respond within 8 business hours.
This can allow people with an outdated prescription to buy lenses, Fogel explained.
Of lens wearers in his study, 21 percent and 32 percent of online and store buyers, respectively, said they did not get an eye exam once a year -- even though New York State, where the survey was done, allows lens prescriptions to be valid for only one year.
Fogel suggested an alternative to passive prescription verification. He said that a national Internet database could be created where, at their patients' request, eye doctors enter lens prescription information. Patients who buy their lenses from a Web site or store could then give the vendor a password to access that information.
But consumers can take steps now to protect their eye health, according to Fogel. He advised that people go to the FDA Web site (www.fda.gov) and brush up on the agency's recommendations on purchasing contacts online.
SOURCE: Optometry, January 2008.