Covid-19 caused a surge in patients having NHS-funded cataract surgery at independent sector providers (ISP), according to data published by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists (RCOphth).

In 2019-20, there were over 450,000 cataract procedures in England, which represented an 11% jump from three years previously, the RCOphth noted.

Data revealed that between 2016-2021, the number of NHS-funded cataract procedures increased by 21% and provision of ISP services experienced a ‘huge shift’ after the second Covid-19 wave.

NHS-funded cataract procedures delivered by ISPs rose from 34% in December 2020 to 55% in January 2021 before reaching a high of 59% in February 2021.

This settled at 45% in the six months up to November 2021. The number of cataract procedures delivered by an NHS provider was 15% lower in November 2021 than prior to the start of the pandemic, despite the number of NHS-funded procedures increasing by 11% over the same period.

RCOpth noted that although ISPs have provided additional capacity for cataract surgery, there was no evidence they have reduced waiting times for NHS eye care services.

Professor Bernie Chang, president of the RCOphth, said: ‘Especially since the pandemic, we have seen a big jump in the role played by independent sector providers. We all need to better understand this shift so informed decisions are made at a local and national level when services are commissioned. That means ensuring we continue to deliver the highest standards of patient care while not destabilising NHS eye care units delivering comprehensive care.’

Findings were published in Changes in NHS cataract surgery in England 2016-2021: an analysis of national, regional and independent sector trends.