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In story on vision-improving headset, WSJ left most important detail in the dark

Rating

3 Star

For the Blind, an Actual-Reality Headset

Our Review Summary

vision improving headsetThis story takes a look at a purported simple visor, eSight, that can help the legally blind see—or at least 7-8% of them, and for the price of $10,000.

What the story does well: It discussed costs of the device not just in passing, but in depth. (It’s an important criteria many outlets whiff on in our reviews.)

However, what are the measured benefits, as seen from clinical evidence? The story says initial study results are due in May–why not wait until then to do the story?

We acknowledge that this story is categorized as a “personal technology” story, not a health news story. But it’s reviewable because it makes claims about an intervention for people. Such stories need data–not just a gee-whiz discussion of tech that is cheaper, smaller and faster.

 

Why This Matters

In the US, there are more than 1.3 million legally blind people, a category that includes impairments such as central vision loss, cloudiness, and heavily blurred field of vision that neither glasses nor contacts can adequately correct. According to the story’s reporting, about 1 in every 13 of those people might benefit from such a device — a sizable number whose lives possibly stand to be improved by sight-aiding devices. If this is the case, this is big news. But without any data to show this is the case, hopeful news readers who buy this device alternately may be left disappointed.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The WSJ reveals that each visor-headset costs $10,000, and even notes how “most insurance doesn’t cover it.” There’s also some back-and-forth viewpoints about that steep cost, which is helpful to readers.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

This is a weak point of the story–there is no discussion of the measured benefits of the device. According to medical evidence, on average how much does it help a person wearing it? What percent of people achieve a measurable benefit? Without these details, it’s unclear if this device is just a fancy pair of goggles or an actual medical device.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There’s no discussion of risks here. Does an eSight cause eye strain? What about headaches? Nausea? Does all-day use impact sleep quality? Is there a feeling of detachment or foggy-headedness that sometimes accompanies use of the virtual reality headsets it takes after? These are but a few of the questions we had on the drawbacks.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story provides a lot of colorful details on how the device works, and how it (perhaps) helps the legally blind. But we’re offered little to no real, objectively-measured data on the technology. Therefore, readers can’t ascertain the quality of the evidence for these devices. The story says initial study results are due in May–why not wait until then to do the story?

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There didn’t appear to be overt disease-mongering, although the condition in question was not adequately defined for reader comprehension.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The story discloses that the featured patient, Yvonne Felix, is an eSight spokesperson. The story adds some needed backstopping from Walter Wittich, a researcher at the University of Montreal. However, the story didn’t disclose that his lab has accepted grants from eSight.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The story walks through the iteration of wearable screens for those with low vision, and it also mentions two competing models aside from the eSight 3. We also get a passing mention of an unnamed “surgical procedure.”

Stargardt disease has no treatment, according to the National Eye Institute, though other “low vision” conditions can be treated with retinal implants, and some are responsive to other types of surgery. However, since there are many diseases or conditions that can lead to low vision and legal blindness, and news stories aren’t supposed to be encyclopedic entries, we’ll mark this one satisfactory.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story notes that the eSight is cleared by the FDA as a Class I device — something that’s presumably about as safe as dental floss (which is also a Class I device, according to the FDA). The story mentions that most insurance carriers reject compensation, which itself implies the eSight 3 is freely available to anyone as long as they have $10,000.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The novelty is made clear in this way:

The eSight visor, in development for 10 years, is reaching a level of maturity. The third-generation, which debuts this week, weighs less, has a wider field of view and just looks cooler.

The story would be stronger if it explained that this doesn’t mean the latest device works better than alternatives.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

We didn’t see any copy/pasted quotes or other material lifted from a news release. Dozens of outlets have covered the company and its devices over the years, and it seems many of them jumped on the story again due to an in-person press event and demo for eSight’s latest model.

 

Total Score: 6 of 10 Satisfactory

Comments (2)

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Kenneth Scholz

November 4, 2018 at 4:43 pm

While the Feb 21, 2017 e-Sight story may have lacked details, it was most timely for us as it grabbed my wife’s interest in time to take her then 96 yr old mother (suffering from macular degeneration – can’t see faces, or much else) to the Toronto headquarters in April for an evaluation and by June she’d received and was working with her e-Sight. She immediately could see faces up close (grandchildren!) and and at a distance (the minister in church), read standard print, cook, see food on her plate, play Scrabble, view museum exhibits, etc.. She values the video streaming feature which allows her to view TV directly (also computer). We value the WIFI hot spot feature which allows us to view what she’s seeing on an iPhone. An interesting perceptual phenomenon occurred, although she has lost central vision she almost immediately began to perceive images as being centered in her visual field – evidence of brain plasticity at an advanced age! The WSJ didn’t run this article too soon.

Reply

    Gary Schwitzer

    November 5, 2018 at 8:37 am

    Kenneth,

    It’s good to hear that your mother is pleased with her outcome.

    The problem with the WSJ story is that it didn’t provide sufficient information or data on the outcomes. So the story doesn’t help people understand what they need to know about a new technology. And so it doesn’t help people understand whether an outcome like your mother’s is likely to happen or not – or how likely. When a news story simply parrots what a company says – “ESight says its tech has worked for about three quarters of the people who have tried it.” – there is no indication that this claim has been independently vetted. How was the study done? Where is it published? That’s what we expect to learn – and what patients need – from high-quality health care journalism.

    Gary Schwitzer
    Publisher

    Reply