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It's time we recognise eye health as an emergency – we need a national strategy

(Alamy)

3 min read

Today marks World Sight Day – an opportunity to focus attention on the importance of eye care. Every day 250 people begin to lose their sight with there now being two million people in the UK who are living with sight loss.

Eye care services in the United Kingdom are under intense pressure. As of June 2022, there were more than 640,000 people waiting to start specialist eye treatment in England. This accounted for almost 10 per cent of total NHS waiting lists and included nearly 26,000 people who had been waiting a year or more.

Delays to diagnosis and treatment could lead to a complete loss of sight, which ranks in the top ten causes of disability. By 2050 it is estimated that 500 people per day will lose their sight.  

The impact of eye conditions is also felt across wider society, with eye conditions estimated to cost the UK economy £25 billion annually. These figures are deeply worrying and should spur us all into action.

A single minister would be able to focus on ensuring services are joined up and commissioned appropriately

I commend what is already being done across the eye health sector to support people living with sight loss and am excited by how far we can go. But we need the government to do more.

It needs to recognise the current eye health situation in the UK as an emergency.

The first step the government can take is to make eye health fall under one ministerial responsibility as opposed to the current structure where eye health falls under multiple ministers.  A single minister would be able to focus on ensuring services are joined up and commissioned appropriately. The role could then connect with new position of national clinical director.

The change in ministerial responsibility would be complemented by a national eye health strategy which will eliminate the postcode lottery of eye care treatment. One that will tackle the capacity crisis in eye care; focus on workforce expansion, deliver research into future treatments, utilise new technologies and increase the uptake of innovative treatments.

A proper strategy would bring together these solutions into one joined-up plan whilst also eliminating the postcode lottery of eye care treatment through ensuring accountability under NHS England and flexibility for local eye care teams to provide the best care they can for their patients.

I will continue to call on the government to commit to producing a national strategy. It’s shocking that there isn’t a strategy to tackle eye health when the government has already recognised the power of strategies for diseases like dementia.

Now more than ever it is also important that health policy considers the social and emotional aspects of living with sight disease. The burdens of sight loss are huge and are currently being compounded by patients being unable to access a specialist or uncertainty around their next appointment. The backlog crisis caused by the pandemic and government mismanagement of the health system will widen health inequalities. It is deeply concerning that the government is potentially going to scrap its long-promised white paper on health disparities.

Part of what inspires me to be a Member of Parliament is being able to use my position and voice to accelerate change for people who are often overlooked, or not considered. That’s why I pledge to continue to hold this government to account and ensure it delivers a better standard of eye care.

To mark World Sight Day, as chair of the APPG for Eye Health and Visual Impairment, I will be hosting a drop-in event in Parliament on Wednesday 19 October 2pm-4.30pm. This is supported by ‘The Eyes Have it Partnership’ and is the second year I have been working with them to promote our shared vision of accessible, inclusive and affordable eye care to everyone, everywhere.

 

Marsha de Cordova, Labour MP for Battersea and chair of the APPG for Eye Health and Visual Impairment.

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