Seeing is Believing: The Importance of Eye-Tracking in Eliminating Health Disparities

By Rob Chappell, Founder and Chief Science Officer, EyeTech Digital Systems
Twitter: @EyeTechDS

It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention, and I know firsthand the truth in this statement. Nearly 20 years ago I was a young electrical engineer writing software in the pipeline services industry when I developed a hand and wrist injury that I couldn’t quite shake. That setback forced me to consider new ways of doing things, specifically my work on the computer.

My search for an alternative way to support my livelihood as a coder led me into the world of assistive technology. After finding tools like voice dictation to be lacking for what I needed to accomplish, I set out to create my own solution using precision eye-tracking to interact with a virtual keyboard. It didn’t take long for me to recognize the potential that eye gaze technology held as a communication conduit for the broader disabled community. In 1996, EyeTech Digital Systems was born. Our mission is to provide life-changing transformation that is to an ALS patient, or similarly disabled individual, what oxygen is to humans—essential.

Communication is what connects us all. The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the tremendous impact that limited engagement can have on so many aspects of life. In many ways, this echoed the day-to-day limitations experienced by those with physical impairments. Throughout the pandemic, technology offered one of the few mechanisms communities had to overcome physical distance barriers. Things like remote learning and telehealth were embraced as a new means to carry on.

The pandemic also brought newfound attention to the magnitude of health disparities among different patient populations. In the telehealth arena, many healthcare providers worked to integrate interpreter services into virtual care to support the needs of limited English proficient patients. As the healthcare industry continues its work to improve health equity and access for all patients, it’s important that we consider the needs of our disabled community as well. Here are four ways eye-tracking can help reduce health disparities.

Consideration 1: Speech Generation

One of the biggest challenges that disabled patients face is the inability to speak. Alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) platforms and speech generating devices (SGD) can leverage eye-tracking to give non-verbal patients their voice back. Gone are the days of going to the doctor and not being able to tell them what you need.

Most AAC devices are FDA-registered and covered by Medicare, Medicaid and many private insurance plans. Another benefit of this technology is that it is certified as a medical device and can be used in the ICU.

Consideration 2: COVID-19 Support

On the same train of thought as the point above, the use of eye-tracking was a gamechanger in assisting patients who were intubated due to COVID-19. ERs and ICUs used eye-tracking technology to communicate with patients who couldn’t speak for themselves.

There are a couple of ways eye-tracking can be used:

  • Web-cam eye-tracking uses the camera on the patient’s phone. The accuracy is usually lower and subject to lighting in the room.
  • Precision eye-tracking uses infrared illumination and high-speed cameras to support greater precision and accuracy.

Consideration 3: It’s All in the Brain

More than 50% of the brain is involved in visual processing. Precision eye tracking allows researchers and doctors to monitor:

  • Fixations
  • Saccades
  • Smooth Pursuit

Tracking this data over time can support earlier detection and intervention for neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. It’s also less invasive than other diagnostics. Use cases also show that eye-tracking can detect learning or developmental disabilities such as autism.

Consideration 4: Hands-Free Clinical Interfacing

Last but not least, eye-tracking creates a system of touch-free interfaces that is greatly beneficial in preventing the spread of germs. Using the power of the eye, patients can reduce physical contact with things like information kiosks, mitigating sanitation concerns. Eye-tracking technology can also offer care teams a hands-free interface during surgery or when engaging at-risk patients.

Eye gaze technology is rapidly evolving. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface on use cases in healthcare and beyond. It truly has the power to change care delivery, improve care access among the disabled community and help level the playing field in care equity.

Recently Rob sat down with Jim Tate on The Tate Chronicles to discuss software for eye tracking systems used in speech devices which help paralyzed individuals communicate and control their computer hands-free using only eye movements. Take a listen.