Addressing the needs of vulnerable patients is not only the right ethical decision: it should feature in business planning for all practices as they consider the challenges of the next few years, writes Henrietta Alderman
An optical practice that thinks hard about how to serve vulnerable people is of course doing the right thing. It is also being business-wise. The practice that supports its staff with training, and allows the time to give these patients the best possible care, will both be managing risk and serving a significant customer demographic with sensitivity.
Figures back up the significance of vulnerable patient groups. SeeAbility’s report, Children in focus: a clear call to action, published in May, highlighted that just under half of all children with learning disabilities have a sight problem – more than in the general population. We support SeeAbility in its work with NHS England to provide more consistent care for young people in special schools, and we believe that optometrists should be at the heart of that work.
The Alzheimer’s Society says that there are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK now, and that this figure will rise to two million by 2051. Another feature of the ageing population is that more people live with several long-term conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, heart conditions and, of course, sight loss through age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and other conditions.
All this adds up to many more vulnerable patients, underlining the importance of focusing even more on clinical care alongside the retail element of our work.
The role of practices
The way that optics is funded can make running a practice in a deprived area a challenge. The AOP is very conscious of the need to explain these challenges to Government and to demonstrate the inequalities in eye care provision around the UK, so that practices operating in deprived areas are properly funded for the service they provide.
"The way that optics is funded can make running a practice in a deprived area a challenge. The AOP is very conscious of the need to explain these challenges to government"
Practice owners could consider diversifying their offer to support people with low vision and with other conditions such as hearing loss. They should consider if domiciliary care could be a significant part of their offer, particularly to retain long-standing patients who still live in their own homes but find it much harder to make the trip to the practice. The Optical Confederation’s (OC) Domiciliary Eyecare Committee (co-chaired by AOP board member Gordon Ilett) has recently updated its guidance on Providing Domiciliary Eyecare Services, which is a very useful reference.
Some of our members choose to undertake an element of voluntary work, for example for Vision Care for Homeless People. This charity both provides sight tests for this vulnerable group of people, and campaigns for Government to make it easier for people with no fixed abode to demonstrate that they qualify for a general ophthalmic services sight test. The AOP supports this aim.
It’s also important to remember the role of practices in looking out for patients who may be at risk of abuse, particularly children and young people. All staff should be appropriately trained in safeguarding, and the OC guidance on Protecting Children and Vulnerable Adults explains what everyone needs to do.
The needs of vulnerable people should feature in business planning for all practices as they consider the challenges of the next few years – this is good business, as well as the right thing to do.