The NHS 10 year plan was published in January 2019. This was with some fanfare since this is the next stage of the strategy to take the NHS forward to achieving excellent patient outcomes, while becoming financially viable. The document is 136 pages long and so has the potential to cover a lot of ground.

On my first read of the document, I was keen to see how well it mapped across to our thinking within the optical professions that we have a role to play at the forefront of eye health within the NHS. Would we be uppermost in the minds of policy makers as a sector which is in their minds to play a part to reduce pressure on GP surgeries and secondary care? How well would it cover the sight and eye health issues that relate to long term NHS aims to keep people living healthier more independent lives? In the detail of 136 pages, what would the role be for our professions within the strategy?

My initial thought after reading through was disappointment, and then I decided I must have missed something, as there was almost no mention of any eye health related issues. Hence, I decided to search for the words ‘sight – eye – optometry - optometrist’. Unfortunately, things got no better; the words ‘sight’ and ‘eye’ both only appear once, and this is in connection with eye sight services for children with learning difficulties. ‘Optometry’ or ‘optometrist’ does not appear at all. Being charitable, I thought perhaps this may be because the document is more general and does not go into the specific functions of professions. This idea was put in its place when I found that pharmacy and/or pharmacist gets 22 mentions and, (no surprise here), GPs over 30.

Not for the first time it has to be said that our professions and representative bodies have not been successful in their attempts to get greater understanding and recognition for our role. The report states that it has been shaped by patients’ groups, professional bodies, (in fact through over 2,500 separate responses, insights offered by 85,000 members of the public and from organisations representing over 3.5 million people), and frontline NHS leaders. The evidence would suggest that there are few if any of those people who have optometry in their thinking. Clearly among the great and good of key decision makers at a national level, we are very low on their radar.

In the absence of any steer from a national policy document, this means that once again we will have an uphill task in engaging local commissioners regarding the role that optical practices and professions could play in the future. To fill the void and to help to bring our role to life, would it be possible to map what we can and should be doing against the aims and objectives of the NHS 10 year plan. In my opinion the answer is yes and actually looks a relatively easy task.

The report starts with an overview that centres on three big truths; pride – in our Health Service’s enduring success, concern – about funding, staffing, increasing inequalities and pressures from a growing and ageing population and optimism – about the possibilities for continuing medical advance and better outcomes of care. The plan uses these truths as its starting point and then sets out in seven chapters how it will future-proof the NHS for the next 10 years. Looking at these overall themes it is easy to see them from an eye health perspective. We can have great pride in the fact that we provide excellent accessible eye care to the nation and at a very affordable price to the public purse without the benefit of any capital funding for equipment or premises. We are concerned that there is an ageing population and that means more eye-related issues together with advances in treatment that will put pressure on an already overworked system. We also have a concern regarding the funding for eye care services with the inequitable cross funding with the sale of spectacles. However, there is optimism and we can point to successes where optical practices and optical professionals are involved in cross sector pathways to the benefit of outcomes and patients.

We can then go on to look at the themes of each of the seven chapters in relation to eye health, which should lead us to be able to articulate and engage commissioners with the contribution we can make to the changes proposed. What this looks like will be considered in next month’s column. To be continued.