Dangers of low eye health literacy

New study finds low awareness of symptoms of emergency eye conditions, in warning for UK


A gap in eye health literacy could cost patients their vision, researchers behind a new US study are warning.

Experts say the findings are also relevant to the UK.

The US research, published in JAMA Ophthalmology, asked 237 patients at a New York internal medicine clinic about four emergency eye problems: retinal detachment, acute angle-closure glaucoma, giant cell arteritis and central retinal artery occlusion.

While a minority of participants had heard of the conditions, only a fraction of them were aware of the symptoms or treatments, such as the floaters, light flashes or “curtain over the field of vision” that indicated retinal detachment.

As these four conditions can cause severe and permanent vision loss if not treated promptly, the authors warned that the low public awareness of these conditions means appropriate medical attention may not be sought in time to save the person’s sight.

Senior study author and assistant ophthalmology profession, Albert Wu, told Reuters: “These diseases are uncommon, which likely contributes to the problem we identified in our study: the public’s lack of awareness and knowledge about them.”

Chair of National Eye Health Week (NEHW), David Cartwright, told OT that he had seen a similar lack of eye health literacy in the UK public throughout his career.

He added: “Short-sighted people are particularly more at risk of retinal detachment, but when you talk to them about it and the signs and symptoms, the vast majority haven’t really thought about it or heard about it.”

Mr Cartwright agreed with the researchers that a lack of understanding led many to delay seeking help when they experienced eye problems. He explained: “I see a number of people who come in on Saturday and say their vision isn’t very good and these problems started last Tuesday, and I think: ‘You should have come last Tuesday.’

“With many of these conditions, unless there’s treatment quickly they’ll lead to irreversible loss of sight,” he emphasised.

As well as promoting eye health lifestyle factors from smoking cessation to healthy diets, NEHW in September will remind the general public of the importance of seeking help for optical issues right away, Mr Cartwright said.

The public was also encouraged to seek the help of an optometrist, rather than the A&E department, in such circumstances.

“If you notice something wrong, immediately go along and see your optometrist, who has the equipment and experience to point you to the right sort of help,” he gave as an example of NEHW’s warnings.

The US study’s publication corresponds with the UK’s Rare Disease Day today (29 February).

A number of UK optical organisations took part in the occasion, with events such as a live-chat with Moorfields Eye Hospital consultant ophthalmologist, Professor Michel Michaelides, for specialists and the general public to learn more about rare eye diseases.