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Q&A: Dame Cheryl Gillan

The MP for Chesham and Amersham shares her thoughts on eye health awareness in Parliament and addressing healthcare inequalities

11 Jun 2019 by Selina Powell

Dame Cheryl Gillan is vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on eye health and visual impairment. She tells OT how a practice visit expanded her view of the work that optometrists perform.

What is the role of the APPG on eye health and visual impairment?

The APPG’s aim, in its own words, is “to inform and educate parliamentarians about the importance of high-quality eye care for the prevention of eye disease, sight loss and blindness and for the eye health of the nation; and to promote better understanding of visual impairment and greater social inclusion.”

My membership of an APPG means that I get updates on developments and issues affecting that area, so it is useful for both knowledge and learning whether you have issues in common with other MPs’ constituents.

“Much of an MP’s work can arise from issues that constituents raise with us”

How aware do you think MPs are of eye health?

As MPs, we receive regular briefings from many organisations, which can be very helpful, but the sheer volume of information and variety of topics that arrive means that none of us can be experts on everything. Much of an MP’s work can arise from issues that constituents raise with us and there can be individual cases, which lead to involvement in a wider Parliamentary debate on how to make sure that NHS provision is there to help people with particular conditions.

What is enormously useful is to be able to contact professional associations because we can look at the context to see how best we can put our arguments to government ministers and others, to try to affect a change of policy or healthcare provision. For instance, the increase in the number of cases of type 2 diabetes being diagnosed in younger people requires an awareness of the potential for future eye problems and healthcare provision.

There are often highly trained and qualified people who can offer help and advice at the local level, but it is important to get the message out there. For instance, the NHS advertising campaign about the importance of getting a flu jab mentions that people can ask their pharmacist for advice at an early stage to treat a cough or cold and prevent it from getting worse. That is a good approach. The prevention of disease is important and with immunisation we tend to forget the side effects of diseases like measles, which were once common but are still very serious and can in the worst cases cause vision loss.

One of the things that our optometrist practices often do, which doesn’t get a lot of publicity but is important, is to act as a collection point for unused spectacles and lenses so that charities can distribute these for practical use elsewhere. Often old pairs of glasses gather dust in a drawer and this way they are useful to somebody else who needs them.

Can you tell me about your visit to an optical practice?

In 2016, I visited Specsavers in Chesham High Street where I met the practice director, Heena Thaker. Bruce Gilson, the chair of the Buckinghamshire Local Optical Committee, also attended.

As well as underlining the importance of regular eye checks for everybody, Bruce said how vital it was for all children to have an eye test by the age of four or earlier if there are any concerns. As a constituency MP, I had some idea that eye checks can help detect other conditions, such as high blood pressure, where individuals might otherwise have no idea that they have a problem, but not the extent of the diseases that can be diagnosed and treated. I also found it very helpful to find out what kinds of equipment and resources are available in the local area to my constituents.

“I am well aware that people can have an “invisible” condition, which means that others around them should be aware and try to make access to healthcare as simple as possible”

What work has been done to improve access to eye care among those with learning disabilities and autism?

The information I received from members of the Buckinghamshire Local Optical Committee recently highlighted the fact that people with a learning disability face a higher than average risk of developing eye problems. This is something which is probably not widely known.

Compared with the population as a whole, an adult with learning difficulties is 10 times as likely to have a serious eyesight problem, while for children that ratio rises to 28 times more. Thus it is essential that those early sight tests should take place.

Having worked closely with the National Autistic Society ever since introducing a Private Member’s Bill on autism in 2009 – which became the first ever disability-specific Act of Parliament – I am well aware that people can have an “invisible” condition, which means that others around them should be aware and try to make access to healthcare as simple as possible.

There has been a lot of positive action in the last decade, including the training that is being rolled out for all NHS frontline staff, which includes optometrists, so that they are aware of how they can help patients. The National Autistic Society's website provides a lot of guidance for patients as well as carers. Alongside that, autism awareness is now also included in teacher training.

The SeeAbility charity is working with the NHS on sight testing and spectacles dispensing in special schools and that is hopefully going to come about this year.
It is so important that there should be pathways to help as many people as possible to get the access that they need to healthcare. After all, earlier this year, the addressing of health inequalities was one of the clinical priorities highlighted in the National Health Service Long Term Plan.

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