In Focus: Campaign for a National Eye Health Strategy

Specsavers wants to improve access to eye care in England. Emma White reports

Giles Edmonds, clinical services director at Specsavers

Specsavers has called for a National Eye Health Strategy to improve and standardise access to eye care in England with community optometrists detecting, treating and managing all eye conditions. Through utilising the skills and existing resources of community optometrists, the strategy would reduce reliance on GPs, Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments and ease pressure on the NHS.

Marsha de Cordova, Labour MP for Battersea, and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Eye Health and Vision Impairment, is leading the campaign in Parliament. ‘Health strategies have delivered positive outcomes in Scotland, as they have in England for other diseases, but at present England is the only country in the UK without an eye health strategy,’ she said.

De Cordova said it was ‘extremely worrying’ that the government was refusing to introduce a strategy and its inaction was undermining efforts to deliver better eye care in England. ‘I have introduced a private members bill calling for a National Eye Health Strategy to improve the quality of life of people with sight loss, eliminate the postcode lottery, address health inequalities and link up patient pathways for improved health outcomes,’ she said.

As someone who had lived with nystagmus since birth, eye health was a topic that De Cordova said was close to her heart. ‘I believe we should make it our national ambition to ensure that no one loses their sight unnecessarily,’ she said.


Millions every year

More than two million people in the UK are living with sight loss, costing the UK economy £36bn per year, with 250 people losing their sight each year due to treatable eye conditions, like glaucoma. A recent Specsavers report found that more than one million A&E visits last year were for eye-related conditions when over half of the cases could have been managed by community opticians. A further five million annual GP consultations a year could be managed by community optometrists using existing infrastructure, the Access to Care report found.

Hairy Biker Dave Myers (pictured right), who had early signs of glaucoma detected during an appointment at a high street practice, has lent his face to the campaign and supported calls for a National Eye Health Strategy.

‘If the early stages of my glaucoma hadn’t been detected during an eye test, it would have progressed and I could have gone blind. That would have been the end of the Hairy Bikers and massively impacted my quality of life. Not being able to see my children’s faces again would have been heartbreaking,’ said Myers.

‘Everybody should have access to eye care locally regardless of where they live, not only to prevent avoidable sight loss but also to detect other life-threatening conditions. We all need to work together to support the NHS and improve patient outcomes,’ he added.

As many as half of all people with glaucoma are undiagnosed, despite the condition being treatable when detected early on, according to a 2021 report on the global extent of undiagnosed glaucoma in adults, published in Ophthalmology. ‘I take daily eye drops to manage my glaucoma and I can proudly say that when wearing my glasses, I have 20:20 vision – so the Hairy Bikers aren’t going anywhere any time soon,’ Myers added.


Pandemic backlog

The impacts of the pandemic are still felt throughout the NHS with ophthalmology being the largest and busiest outpatient service, according to Specsavers. The eye care backlog accounts for more than 650,000 patients – approximately 10% of the total number of patients on NHS waiting lists. Poor eye health and sight loss can additionally reduce a person’s independence and increase the likelihood of loneliness, depression, falls and dementia, contributing to many other NHS lists, the multiple highlighted.

Current access to eye care in England was not working, it said, with some groups being particularly disadvantaged. A National Eye Health Strategy would, for example, provide free access to eye tests for people experiencing homelessness. Older and disabled people living in residential care settings would have faster access to NHS eye tests under a new strategy and it would also promote NHS telemedicine and remote consultations for those living in remote locations, according to the group.

Giles Edmonds, clinical services director at Specsavers, said: ‘Over 17 million adults in the UK haven’t had an eye test in the past two years, as recommended. We believe everyone should have equal access to eye care. Specsavers is all about changing lives through better sight; by the eye health sector working together, we can support our patients and the NHS.’