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New technology for eye surgery to be rolled out to more Singapore hospitals

Laser-assisted surgery carried out for the first time last year will make it’s way to more of the country’s hospitals by next year

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2017, 11:55am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2017, 11:56am

By Eveline Gan

Despite spending most of his working hours outdoors inspecting heavy machinery over the last decade, sun protection was never a priority for businessman Tan Beng Wee, 61, who found wearing sunglasses and hats “inconvenient”.

The excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light took a toll on his eyes.

Three years ago, Mr Tan was diagnosed with pterygium, a benign wing-shaped lesion that typically occurs in the corner of the eye. Also known as Surfer’s Eye, the condition is more commonly seen in countries near the Equator, such as Singapore, due to the higher UV exposure in these parts of the world. Left unchecked, pterygium may affect vision.

The reddish fleshy lesions became larger over time and eventually spread to Mr Tan’s pupils.

“I’ve heard of UV rays damaging the skin but was not aware they could affect the eyes, too. By the time I realised my mistake (of not wearing sunglasses), it was too late,” he said.

Last year, Mr Tan became the first person in the world to undergo the femtosecond laser-assisted pterygium surgery (Flaps) at the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC). It was the first time the laser technology, which has been used for cataract and Lasik surgery, was used in pterygium surgery.

Presently, the gold standard surgical treatment for pterygium involves removing the fleshy wing-shaped growth and then transplanting a translucent patch called the conjunctiva over it.

The procedure, known as a conjunctival autograft (self-transplant), is done using tissue taken from under the patient’s upper eyelid. This reduces the risk of the pterygium lesion recurring. However, research has shown that the outcome of the procedure is also dependent on several factors including the surgeon’s skill and experience in performing the autograft by hand, said Associate Professor Jodhbir Singh Mehta, head and senior consultant of SNEC’s Corneal and External Eye Disease Department.

“With this new technique, we hope that every single person with pterygium who undergoes surgery can get just as good an outcome irrespective of how experienced their surgeon is,” said Assoc Prof Mehta.

To date, 27 patients have undergone the Flaps trial at SNEC. It will be rolled out to other hospitals by next year and Assoc Prof Mehta said it costs about S$150 (US$108) more than the regular procedure.

Mr Tan now wears wraparound sunglasses with proper UV protection whenever he is outdoors or driving.

“It was only after my brush with pterygium that I realised how precious my eyes are and started taking good care of them. People who play and work outdoors frequently should really think about protecting their eyes from UV damage,” he said.

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