Published in Primary Care
Educating Patients on Sunglasses and Ocular Health
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Learn why you should make it a point to educate your patients about sun protection and tips for doing so during their time in your office.
As eyecare professionals, we are faced with the challenge of communicating a large amount of information to our patients in a short amount of time. It can be easy to skip over the discussion about the importance of sunglasses and ocular health—but can we really afford to have our patients out in the sun without protection?
The answer, of course, is no: especially now that a recent survey shows that 11% of our patients may be wearing sunglasses less frequently because of their masks. Here is why you should make it a point to educate your patients about sun protection and tips for doing so during their time in your office.
Sun damage has been linked to multiple eye conditions ranging from benign to serious. Here are just a few conditions to consider:
Pinguecula: This is a small benign growth on the bulbar conjunctiva that can cause discomfort including increased eye dryness and poor contact lens fit. As a side note, some patients may refer to “pinguecula” as “penguins”—don’t be too surprised, and don’t worry about a mini-flightless bird.
Pterygium: Slightly more problematic than pinguecula is the pterygium, which can make its way into the cornea causing increased astigmatism. An unchecked pterygium may even obscure vision, at which point surgery is recommended.
Cancer of the conjunctiva and eyelid: Excessive sun damage has been linked to various cancers of the eyelid and conjunctiva including malignant melanoma of the eyelid, as well as basal and squamous cell carcinoma.
Early onset cataracts: While everyone who lives to old age will eventually develop some form of cataract, some patients will get them earlier than others. There are several risk factors for early-onset cataracts including diabetes, trauma, and Wilson’s disease. Years of unprotected sun damage can also lead to early cataract formation.
Photokeratitis: This is a rare, but painful complication of unprotected sun exposure and will only typically occur if there is a lot of unprotected exposure to ultraviolet rays. Photokeratitis can result from sun exposure as well as exposure to high UV artificial light.
Solar retinopathy: Cases of solar retinopathy tend to become a concern whenever there is an eclipse because this condition is related to direct viewing of the sun without proper protection. And no, sunglasses are not enough to protect your patient’s retina from direct sun exposure. This is an important topic to discuss with patients and staff, especially when there’s an eclipse coming up.
Age-related macular degeneration: Sunlight exposure has been proposed as a risk factor for AMD commencement and progression. It is important, however, to note that researchers have not been able to find a significant correlation between age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and sunlight.
Aging: Unprotected exposure to UV light makes the skin age faster and the skin around the eye is more delicate, and thinner, than almost anywhere else on the body.
Sunglasses help reduce UV exposure by blocking harmful UV light from reaching your eyes as well as the delicate skin around your eyes. Sunglasses that carry the label of 100% UV A and B protection of the “UV 400” label are the ones that will block enough light to be considered protective.
If you have a photometer in your optical, you can test any pair of sunglasses for their UV blocking ability. You can invite your patients to have their sunglasses checked to ensure that they are doing a satisfactory job of blocking UV rays.
There are a few common sunglasses myths that you can discuss with your patients. Here are a few of the most common:
Myth #1: Children don’t need sunglasses. Infants and children are just as susceptible to UV damage as adults and do need sun protection.
Myth #2: Only expensive sunglasses offer UV protection. Sunglasses do not need to break the bank to provide protection, but they do need to contain the label that states their ability to block a sufficient amount of UV rays.
Myth #3: Size isn’t a factor. When it comes to sunglasses, bigger is better simply because larger sunglasses provide more coverage and more UV protection. If your patient is a fan of small sunglasses, encourage them to consider pairing these with a hat for additional protection.
Myth #4: You don’t need sunglasses on cloudy days. The light that’s coming through on a cloudy day still contains the UV component so it’s best to wear sunglasses outdoors regardless of whether it’s sunny or cloudy.
Myth #5: Darker lenses are better. UV protection is not directly related to the color of the lens so darker lenses or even tinted lenses may not protect against UV light.
Myth #6: Polarized lenses equal UV protection. Polarized lenses protect against glare, but do not necessarily offer UV protection. While it’s possible to have sunglasses that offer UV protection and are polarized, the two terms are not interchangeable.
Myth #7: Sunglasses are enough to view an eclipse. While sunglasses do protect from UV light, they do not offer enough protection to safely view a solar eclipse. When looking up at the sun for any reason you should wear specialized eclipse glasses or, if looking through a telescope, use the appropriate sun filter.
Asking your patient how often they wear sunglasses, either via the patient questionnaire or directly in your exam room, can be a great conversation starter. If the patient doesn’t wear sunglasses, ask them why and troubleshoot from there. If the patient is dismissive of the idea of sunglasses consider something like:
Over time, too much unprotected exposure to sunlight can damage your eye as well as the skin around your eye leading to various conditions including early cataracts and cancer. Wearing sunglasses helps decrease your risk of these conditions.
If the patient seems to understand the benefits but admits to not wearing them enough, consider encouraging them to recommit to more consistent wear.
Hearing that you, their primary eye doctor, recommend sunglass wear can be enough to motivate them.
There are many ways to incorporate sunwear education into your patient care. Here are just a few:
Offer reading material: You can choose to create your own reading material or source from organizations like the American Optometric Association.
Include the information on your website: Have the information listed on your website for patients who consume their information via digital means.
Get social: If your office has social media accounts, consider posting about the importance of eyewear protection year round.
Enlist other members of your team: You can start the conversation about sunglasses, but your technician or optician can further educate the patient about sunglasses benefits as well as the benefits of UV coating on their glasses.
Sunglasses, while aesthetically pleasing, must also be promoted for their ocular health benefits. In addition to advocating for and educating our patients’ eye health, promoting the use of UV protection can also be a great practice builder. Patients know and trust us as their primary care eye doctors. When recommendations are made regarding optimal choices in eye wear and protection, patients take this information into account during future purchases in your optical.
Make sure your patient base (and practice) doesn’t suffer unnecessarily by not incorporating extensive patient education and marketing materials around UV protection and benefits of sunglass wear.