Labour Party to utilise High Street optometrists to tackle “two-tier health system”

Shadow Health Minister Karin Smyth announced Labour’s intention to negotiate a deal with community optometry as part of her speech at the Institute for Government annual conference

A young man in a grey suit jacket receives an eye test from a male optometrist who has his back to the camera  
The Labour Party will harness High Street optometrists in an effort to tackle the backlog in outpatient appointments, Shadow Health Minister Karin Smyth said yesterday (23 January).

Speaking at the Institute for Government’s annual conference, Smyth emphasised that a “two-tier health system” has emerged under the current Government, with 619,000 patients waiting for eye care treatment.

Of this number, 17,000 have been waiting for more than a year, Smyth said, adding that “patients are left with a desperate choice – wait and risk losing their eyesight, or pay to go private.”

Many patients are waiting for routine tests that could be carried out in High Street optometry practices, Smyth said.

If elected to government, Labour would seek to negotiate a deal with High Street optometrists to enable them to deliver outpatient appointments.

The Labour Party believes that delivering routine appointments in this way would be cheaper for the taxpayer than having them take place in hospital as well as being more convenient for patients, Smyth said.

She added that 6000 optometrists currently working in High Street practice already have the skills and equipment to see patients quickly.

Meeting growing patient needs in a sustainable way

Speaking about the plans, Adam Sampson, AOP chief executive, said: “We welcome the Labour Party’s focus on primary eye care. We are facing a health crisis in this country. This includes a hospital waiting list emergency, with growing numbers of patients facing avoidable and irreversible sight loss due to delays.”

He added: “Labour has quite rightly acknowledged the important role of primary eye care services in the community in reducing the backlog, and we are committed to helping wherever we can to design services that meet demand and the needs of patients.

“Fixing eye care does not require years of investment in new facilities and staff training. Optometrists on the High Street have the premises, the equipment and the clinical skills to deliver accessible, high-quality eye care. All it takes is the political vision to make sure optometry is able to provide the care patients need.”

Professor Leon Davies, President of The College of Optometrists, said: “The College of Optometrists welcomes Labour's proposed initiative to improve eye care delivery, while ensuring excellent patient care and reducing unnecessary sight loss.

“Enhanced national services that effectively utilise the full skills and competencies of optometrists and colleagues working in primary eye care would reduce the burden on current NHS hospital services and result in better outcomes for patients.”

He added: “We encourage all health decision-makers to continue to engage with us and other professional bodies, to achieve a well-informed strategy for eye health care that ensures all patients in England can access care close to home and without long waits.”

Specsavers also welcomed the plans. Giles Edmonds, clinical services director for the multiple, called primary care optometrists “GPs of the eye,” but added that “there is so much more we could do to protect our patients’ sight, keep them safe and well, and take pressure off hospital services.”

The Labour Party’s plan “to make greater use of High Street optometry services to cut waiting lists and provide more accessible and convenient care for patients, and stand ready to partner with NHS hospital eye services to improve patient care,” is welcomed by the organisation, Edmonds said.

President of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, Professor Ben Burton, noted that in 2023 there were nine million ophthalmology outpatient appointments and 15 million NHS sight tests performed in the UK.

“With this demand set to grow even higher as our population ages, it is essential that ophthalmology and optometry are supported to deliver more integrated care,” Burton said.

He added: “While expanding ophthalmology infrastructure and workforce capacity is essential and must be prioritised, we should also be making better use of the existing expertise and facilities in High Street optical practices to manage stable, chronic conditions.

“The Labour Party’s announcement today is therefore a positive commitment to supporting eye care patients and we would offer our clinical expertise to shape this policy if delivered in government.”

A neighbourhood health service

During her speech, Smyth also expressed the belief that the NHS should be viewed as a ‘neighbourhood health service’ as much as it is a national health service.

To this end, she revealed that Labour plans to trial ‘neighbourhood health centres’ in every area of the UK if it is elected to government.

These centres will include family doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, dentists and mental health specialists under one roof, Smyth said.

She added that every part of the healthcare system should play its part “in driving down wasteful costs.”

This should be done by harnessing resources that are already available in the NHS, Smyth said.