Report laying out a blueprint for eye health launched at Westminster Eye Health Day
The third annual Westminster Eye Health Day saw the launch of a report identifying prevention, diagnosis, technology, workforce issues and equity of access as focal points for a national eye health strategy
14 December 2023
Westminster Eye Health Day 2023 saw MPs and stakeholders from within eye health pledging their support for an organised strategy for eye health in England.
Held on Monday 11 December at the Houses of Parliament, the day served as a launching pad for the Laying the foundations for the future of eye health in England report, which is calling for a national eye care plan to address surging patient demand.
The report identifies critical areas that must be addressed in order to prevent further life-changing sight loss, and emphasises that coordinated action is required to improve eye care for patients in England.
people waiting to start specialist ophthalmology treatment in England as of September 2023
The report’s key asks include improved IT connectivity and image sharing between primary and secondary care, greater opportunities for people living with sight-threatening conditions to be supported by trained eye care liaison officers, better utilisation of the primary eye care workforce to deliver more care outside hospital, and the doubling of funding for eye care research.
Westminster Eye Health Day is organised by The Eyes Have It partnership, of which the AOP is a member.
The Eyes Have It commissioned the report in order to highlight current challenges and solutions to support the NHS, and to improve patient care.
During the day, MPs from across the political spectrum were invited to drop in to discuss the issues at hand with experts from across the sector and attending clinicians.
Opening the event, Marsha de Cordova, MP for Battersea and co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Eye Health and Vision Impairment, said it was vital to ensure that “government and ministers are engaged on what we all believe is an absolutely important issue.”
Whilst acknowledging that there are huge pressures across the NHS for all health conditions, de Cordova emphasised that the fact there are currently more than 640,000 people waiting to start specialist ophthalmology treatment in England means that eye health is a “serious, serious concern.”
Regional variations and a postcode lottery for care mean people are not currently receiving timely diagnoses or access to the right treatments and do not have adequate support in order to live well with their eye conditions, de Cordova said.
She noted that England is the only country in the UK that does not currently have an eye health strategy, and emphasised that the report offers a blueprint for this.
She added: “We are all united in the change that we all want to see across the sector. From industry to health to the voluntary sector, together we must continue to push for this change within eye health, and push for elements of the strategy to be included in all manifestos for all political parties ahead of the general election in 2024.
“Our message is simple: everyone should have access to high quality eye health care when and where they need it.”
Keith Valentine, chief executive of Fight for Sight/Vision Foundation and a member of The Eyes Have It, called the day “a moment for optimism, and for opportunity.”
The report sets out a plan for the future, he said, adding that his own experience of being diagnosed with sight loss and subsequently seeing his daughter being diagnosed with the same condition has made him believe that “the system we’ve got is fractured in ways that are fixable.”
He added: “We should be optimistic about the right investment and the right development in the system making a profound difference to what is possible.
“This report represents a really exciting opportunity for us to look forward to an environment where eye health, which is critical to the productivity of our country and to making sure employment rates are where they should be and that we’re dynamic and creative and forward looking, is got right.”
Valentine emphasised that earlier diagnosis means better outcomes, as well as a better chance of being able to cope with the mental health impact that comes with sight loss or other eye health conditions.
“I would urge everyone in this room to take something away from here: what we do next matters. It is positive and the potential is there,” he said.
Optometrists and AOP Councillors, Tushar Majithia and Josie Evans, speak to OT during Westminster Eye Health Day
What do you see as the main value of Westminster Eye Health Day, and what changes do you hope will come about as a result of it?Tushar Majithia (TM): It’s really useful to be able to speak to policymakers, and it’s great to have this collaboration between the optometry profession, ophthalmology, and research. There are lots of people around the room who hopefully can make a difference in terms of developing a plan to produce coordinated eye care, reduce the backlog in waiting times, and reduce preventable sight loss.
Josie Evans (JE): I think it’s a brilliant opportunity to highlight the importance of eye care and how much it can save the NHS as a whole if we utilise the skills of optometrists correctly.
It’s really exciting that we're raising awareness of optometrists, because they do so much excellent work in community eye care practices across the nation, and yet sometimes they aren’t utilised. We all have a very patient-centred approach, and patients are seeing a postcode lottery at the moment with their access to eye care. So, I think it is fantastic that we can highlight these issues. Hopefully we will come together to build a solution that lasts for the future and is sustainable and helps our patients.
What do you hope changes with eye care in 2024?TM: There has been a lot of talk about improving connectivity between primary and secondary care. It has been going on for a number of years, and we’re really hopeful that there will be more developments with regard to sharing of data, sharing of patient information between organisations to improve patient care, and greater development of pathways on a national level, to help reduce the backlog in waiting times.
JE: I think it would be brilliant to have a national eye care strategy, but also to focus on community-based eye care – to have something that is cross-nation, that is equal for all patients no matter where they live, and also to have something that utilises the independent prescribing qualification.
We’ve got an increasing number of prescribing optometrists who don’t have access to an NHS prescribing pad, so patients still have to pay privately if they wish to use their services. Something that allows us to be the first port of call for patients, that commissions that across the nation, and that utilises IP, would be a really good place to start.
What do you think are some of the key issues that are contributing to sight loss in the UK at the moment?TM: Because of the delays in people being seen, we’re seeing more and more patients who are having to wait, sometimes over a year, to get that first appointment. Follow-up appointments are being delayed as well. Patients are having to pay privately to see a consultant to get treatment, which shouldn’t be the case. It’s something that, in this day and age, shouldn’t happen.
JE: I completely agree. It’s the delay, from the point of a suspect diagnosis in community eye care, to the point of first contact with a hospital to confirm diagnosis and initiate treatment. One of the ways to avoid that is to have referral schemes in the community, to make sure that referrals going into the hospitals are truly meant to be there.
Also, encouraging the prescribing powers of community optometrists so that if we do suspect or have a clear diagnosis in the community, we can start with prescribing, treating and managing that patient before they get into the hospital so that their treatment isn’t delayed.
Josie Evans was interviewed by BBC In Touch as part of a 20-minute report on Westminster Eye Health Day. Listen to the report here.