The Impact of Diabetic Eye Disease

Today, more than 29 million people in the United States have diabetes.1

You may not be aware, that as a result, diabetes is the leading cause of blindness among adults aged 20-74.2

Today, we know that the longer someone has lived with diabetes (especially if poorly controlled), the higher the likelihood of developing diabetic eye disease. The result of which can lead to serious vision loss that renders someone unable to read, drive, or even watch TV. Too few people are aware it can be managed and devastating vision loss prevented.

When someone has diabetes, over time blood vessels in the eye are damaged, which can result in leakage from the blood vessels and swelling of the retina (called diabetic macular edema, or DME). Early symptoms of DME may include blurry vision that “just won’t go away.” As an ophthalmologist, patients have told me it’s as if they need new glasses, but glasses don’t fix the problem.

The Personal Economics of DME

Genentech, and our parent company Roche, have been exploring ways to help people with diabetes for quite some time. In fact, Genentech successfully produced human insulin using recombinant DNA back in 1978 (when my father was just beginning his own career as an ophthalmologist) and have been on the lookout for new molecules to treat the complications that can result from diabetes.

But, we are not only immersed in research.

Genentech remains one of the few biotech companies with a dedicated health economics department on staff who work to understand the societal costs of various diseases. Eyesight is a precious commodity, and my colleagues work diligently to raise awareness about how diabetes can impact eyesight, and the devastating result it has on families when that eyesight is lost.

What we have discovered is that diabetes doesn't only impact health—diabetes and diabetic eye disease result in increased days out of work. We all know that lost hours and lost pay can have a ripple effect, leading to financial instability and emotional stress... becoming weight to bear for everyone in that household.

Although this routine exam can help patients prevent devastating vision loss, one out of four people skip their annual retina eye exam, putting themselves at risk for vision loss.

Recently, a retina specialist came to us because he noticed a common thread among many of his patients. They were long-haul commercial truck drivers in his area and they were presenting with diabetic eye disease. For these patients, maintaining good eyesight means keeping their jobs. So, with that real-world insight, Genentech looked at commercial drivers and non-commercial drivers with and without diabetes.3

Commercial drivers who had diabetic eye disease were out from work an average of 22 days a year, almost twice as much as drivers without diabetic eye disease.3 These people need their vision to drive safely and support their livelihoods, and diabetes was stealing their sight and putting their livelihood in jeopardy.

Ability to Change

Because DME and other forms of diabetic eye disease are often asymptomatic in their early stages, the best way to detect the condition is through an annual retina (dilated) eye exam, which the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Society of Retina Specialists, and the American Diabetes Association all recommend for people living with diabetes.

Although this routine exam can help patients prevent devastating vision loss, one out of four people skip their annual retina eye exam, putting themselves at risk for vision loss.

In 2013, we partnered with the Alliance Health Network to find out what people with diabetes knew about its potential impact on vision. The results are daunting:

  • 22 percent never had a conversation with their doctor about the risk of vision loss

  • 13 percent didn't think they had diabetes long enough for it to affect their vision. (If you've had diabetes for more than 10 years, you're at a high risk for diabetic eye disease.)

  • 32 percent didn't know they needed an eye exam that included looking at the retina (Yearly exams are an easy way for your eye doctor to determine if there has been any kind of worsening of diabetic eye disease, even if you can still see clearly.)

As a physician, I’m grateful to have worked on the team that developed a medication for DME—but it’s my hope that some day we can prevent or stop diabetic eye disease altogether. Until that day, we implore people with diabetes to monitor their blood sugars and diet, get annual dilated eye exams and do whatever they can to proactively prevent the vision loss that can impact every facet of their lives.


  • 1. [CDC] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2014. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Sham and Prevention [resource on the internet; updated 2014; cited 2014 June 11]. Available at:
  • 2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vision Health Initiative. Available at: Accessed June 26, 2012.
  • 3. Brook RA, Kleinman NL, Patel S, et al. How does diabetic eye disease affect the American worker? Poster presented at: The 73rd Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association. Chicago, IL: June 21-25, 2013.