Do you want to improve the eye health of people in the UK? Can you play a part in eliminating avoidable sight loss? And do you believe in support, inclusion, participation and independence for people with sight loss? If the answer to any or all of these questions is yes, the rationale behind the UK Vision Strategy will not be lost on you.
Launched two years ago, the strategy brings together hundreds of diverse organisations, many of which were represented in Birmingham last week at the annual conference, Vision UK 2010. The event coincided with National Eye Health Week and saw the launch of a new patient's charter for eye care and sight loss services (see page 4).
The UK Vision Strategy is part of a global initiative, Vision 2020, to reduce preventable blindness and improve support and services for blind and partially sighted people by the year 2020. Nick Astbury, chair of Vision 2020 UK, said that the UK was playing its part in this initiative at home, with all four national plans now published.
Common themes at the conference were the likely effects of public spending cuts on services and the need for collaboration across the sector.
Chief executive of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Lesley-Anne Alexander said the primary concern in the face of impending cuts was the end-user. 'All in this sector have an emotional commitment to those who have the most critical need. We must harness our vast experience of making every pound count and get close to our customers.'
With a possible nod to the RNIB's support for Tesco's free eye test offer earlier this year, she conceded the charity was sometimes difficult to work for. 'We need a coherent response to challenges to eye care strategy,' she said.
Health economist Dr Andrew Walker, budget adviser to the Scottish Parliament, said that the total cost of eye disease to the UK was in excess of £210m and broader economic and social costs took that figure to nearly £700m and rising. The figures were impressive, but he questioned whether they meant eye health should be prioritised. Each new service had to be evaluated as it emerged.
The measure used to assess value for money of a medical invention was the QALY (quality adjusted life year), reflecting both quality and length of life. Getting a fair share of resources would entail measuring performance and a crucial first step to protecting resources was to set targets. Although some current targets, such as smoking cessation, were relevant to eye health, there was no target specific to eye care.
In a key address, David Blunkett MP offered advice on how to raise the profile of eye care and sight loss services nationally, and make the case for protecting funding. Organisations could share resources but should also look at how services could be improved. Practical support was needed to handle not only the physical effects of sight loss but the emotional impact too.
New diagnostic techniques were picking up signs of diabetes at an early stage and his own grandchildren, aged two and three, already had glasses. The government's Sure Start children's centres might be involved in the early diagnosis of eye problems, he said.
Blunkett's comments on the effects on poverty and deprivation on health were echoed by Sarah Rochira of RNIB Cymru, who said that links with lifestyle and health conditions, such as smoking and diabetes, were causing a 'tsunami' of sight loss in Wales. Every year about 2,000 people were losing their sight, half of which was preventable.
As well as being a public health issue, sight loss should be considered in other policy areas such as transport, leisure, social inclusion, poverty and access to culture, she argued.
Phil Stevens, director of the Wales Council for the Blind, outlined the new national vision strategy for Wales, which included a requirement for all social care rehabilitation officers to be registered. The aim was to have full-time ECLOs (eye care liaison officers) in each of the 15 eye clinics in Wales.
In optometry, Wales was leading the way in low vision provision, a trial scheme for glaucoma screening in the community was under way, and PEARS (Primary Eyecare Acute Referral Scheme) was on track to refer its 10,000th client this year.
Another recurrent theme at the conference was the need to look at more creative ways of delivering services. Professional adviser to the Association of Optometrists Geoff Roberson said delivering the best services might include innovative approaches such as using community centres and church halls. A lot more could be made of facilities and resources in community settings that were easily accessible, with minimal barriers and an appropriate level of care.
A key question was who would deliver these services. For Roberson, no one individual or professional group would be able to handle all the needs of sight loss patients in the UK, which neatly summed up the mood of the conference and the thinking behind the UK Vision Strategy. ●
● To watch the conference proceedings, go to www.vison2020uk.org.uk/ukvisionstrategy