National Eye Health Week: Saving our sight
Ophthalmologist giving patient eye examination | Credit – Stock Photo Corbis Images; Photographer/Producer: 237.0
This National Eye Health Week, Bayer UK's Medical Director for Ophthalmology and Neurology, Dr Jackie Napier, sets out how we can meet the UK's growing eye health needs.
This article has been initiated and funded by Bayer plc who are fully responsible for content. This article will be reviewed in September 2025
We all know that the NHS does fantastic work every day. And despite the many unexpected and difficult challenges brought about by COVID-19, it revealed the best of our NHS and highlighted the skill, resilience and fortitude of its staff.
Unfortunately, the legacy of the pandemic has greatly magnified some of the serious issues that already existed in the NHS before Covid. Waiting lists are an important example, exacerbated by a widespread NHS staffing crisis in many specialties.
To examine the scale of the problem, let’s look at eye health.
According to the Royal College of Ophthalmologists (RCOphth), ophthalmology is the largest outpatient specialty for the NHS and drawing from Public Health England’s (PHE), ‘Vision Atlas’, there were nine million outpatient attendances for vision in 2019/201. Poor eye health mostly affects the elderly and people living with conditions like diabetes. Vision impairment may be associated with depression, lack of independence and a lower quality of life, and may result in increased health inequalities amongst those affected, particularly minority ethnic communities and those with learning difficulties2. For this reason, PHE (now called the UK Health Security Agency) believed that sight loss should be made a public health priority3.
In a sense, this isn’t a new ask. In recognition of the potential opportunities for more joined-up NHS care created by the formation of the Integrated Care Systems, the Industry Vision Group published their Action Plan for Ophthalmology in 20214 building on the good work of Getting It Right First Time (GIRFT), NHS Right Care and other initiatives. Recent developments including the appointment of a National Clinical Director for eye care in 20225, a major supermarket chain offering NHS diabetic eye screening in their stores6 and the Westminster Hall Debate about the need for a national eye care strategy in Parliament7 have all added to the momentum to improve ophthalmic services.
In light of these promising developments and recent public awareness campaigns on eye health8, it is surprising that the Department of Health and Social Care Major Conditions Strategy9 does not explicitly include vision in the list of the conditions that cause ill health and pressure on the system. If we consider the co-morbidities and the social and emotional needs of people living with visual impairment, it could be argued that it is short-sighted to exclude ophthalmological conditions from this strategy. Such an omission would also appear to run counter to the direction of travel of NHS strategic focus towards prevention, health promotion and population health management, as outlined in the Hewitt Review recommendations10.
Perhaps one reason for this lies with the NHS workforce. The 2022 RCOphth workforce census revealed a serious shortage of consultants in eye clinics and recruitment issues in the specialty, problems which have added to the NHS outpatient backlog11. This has led to the College of Optometrists warning that people are suffering from preventable sight loss12 following the publication of an Association of Optometrists report which showed how treatment delays have resulted in “moderate or dangerous harm” to patients13, leading to the claim that we are facing an eye health emergency.
With all the goodwill towards the NHS, generated during the pandemic, surely we must find a way forward to support our ophthalmology services more effectively in their ambition to meet the growing eye health needs of our population? We need to invest our limited and precious resources strategically to ensure that we have the right people to treat the right patients, at the right time and in the right settings. We believe that one way for this to happen is for the NHS to have in place a National Eye Care Strategy as outlined by Miss Marsha de Cordova MP in her Private Members’ Bill14.
Job bag number: PP-PF-OPHT-GB-0940. Date of publication: September 2023.
End of Bayer plc funded article
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