Warby Parker dove into the online refraction market last year with an iPhone app called Prescription Check that, as others do, looks to skim the easiest Rx refills off the top of the market. Only healthy myopes need apply. Earlier this month, the app kicked up some controversy when it was the top-featured item in Apple’s app store, with the cheeky ad line, “Dr. Warby will see you now.”
So I downloaded the app to size up Dr. Warby. It starts with a disclaimer that the app isn’t a substitute for an eye exam. (Then why personify a bare-bones vision test with a cutesy fake-doctor persona?)
First I fielded questions about amblyopia, nystagmus, flashes and floaters, glaucoma and other complex eye health issues. By the time it asked if I have family members with “hereditary retinal problems like retinitis pigmentosa,” all I could think of was Troy McClure, the beloved Simpsons character, a washed-up actor who would take any job, no matter how small or undignified. In a 1992 episode, Homer buys a do-it-yourself video narrated by McClure called The Half-Assed Approach to Foundation Repair in a foolhardy effort to save a few bucks, thinking he can tackle such a complex project himself instead of hiring a professional. Homer quickly gets flustered by Troy’s complicated, jargon-heavy instructions (“Assemble the aluminum J-channel using self-furring screws”) and realizes foundation repair is not a DIY project.
I’m guessing most people know as much about retinitis pigmentosa as Homer does about aluminum J-channels. If this app and others like it don’t qualify as The Half-Assed Approach to Eye Care, I don’t know what does.
After the breezy medical screening, the app got me to simulate an exam lane using my laptop. It made no stipulations about lighting conditions or the viewing angle and height of the screen—you know, minor stuff. Next it asked if I “have any complaints about the prescription” I’m currently wearing and gave me a yes/no reply and the option to leave a note for the doctor. (Nice chairside manner, Dr. Warby.) It asked for a copy of my current Rx—as if people keep that handy. I scribbled a fake one and plowed on. Finally, it walked me through a few simple acuity tests. The results will be checked by a doctor, the company says, and there’s no charge if it recommends a comprehensive eye exam. But if the mysterious Dr. Warby deems that your Rx didn’t change and can be refilled online, you get charged $40—and, I’m sure, are steered right into the Warby Parker frame selection app.
My Dr. Warby experience was lousy. But, hey, it was “convenient.” Why should that justify it? Listen, I wish the public knew about RP and glaucoma and everything else so they could make better-informed decisions about their care. But apps like this encourage irresponsibility and cloak it in the guise of convenience and empowerment, which is worse than the benign neglect that keeps most people out of doctors’ offices. Don’t let eye health be another victim of this era’s war on expertise. Tell your patients: Be Lisa Simpson, not Homer. Brains beat buffoonery every time.