NHS patient backlogs are leading to life-changing sight loss, FOI request reveals

Experts say health emergency that is piling pressure on hospital departments can be averted by providing more care on the high street

  • FOI request revealed NHS clinicians have filed 551 reports in relation to patients’ sight loss due to delayed appointments since 2019 - with 219 resulting in “moderate or severe harm”
  • Latest figures reveal 628,502 people are waiting for ophthalmology appointments – the second largest NHS backlog, equating to one in every 11 patients on an NHS waiting list
  • In a survey of UK optometrists, 72% said they have seen a patient in the last six months who had experienced a delay to treatment of 12 months or more
  • Four in 10 patients with macular eye conditions who have experienced NHS delays in the past two years fear losing their sight, with 21% struggling with day-to-day tasks 
  • The Association of Optometrists is calling on the Government to urgently commit to a national eye health strategy to provide care to more patients in the community and halve appointments in some hospital departments
  • Pam Perceval-Maxwell, 75, who has wet age-related macular degeneration said: “I’m terrified I will lose my sight entirely. When your consultant stresses how important it is to have the injections on time but you can’t get an appointment it’s such a worry. I regularly call to see if there is a cancellation but I ask myself how much longer can I cope with it.”

Eyecare patients have lost their sight due to NHS backlogs, a Freedom of Information request to NHS England has revealed.

Clinicians have reported more than 200 cases of people losing their vision due to treatment delays since 2019, with hundreds more unreported cases suspected.

Describing the situation as a health emergency, the Association of Optometrists (AOP) is calling on the Government to commit to a national eye health strategy that enables more patients to access the care they need quickly and locally.

Currently 628,502 people are awaiting ophthalmology appointments in England alone – the second largest NHS backlog, equating to one in every 11 patients on an NHS waiting list. Furthermore, 27,260 of those have been waiting a year or more. 

In response to a Freedom of Information request by Optometry Today, NHS England has revealed that there have been 551 reports to the National Reporting and Incident system in relation to sight loss due to delayed appointments since 2019.

Of those reports, 99 incidents involved “severe harm” and 120 incidents caused “moderate harm”.

One incident report described a patient with wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) who lost vision in their left eye after their injection treatment was delayed. The patient was meant to have monthly injections but presented at clinic after three months had passed without an appointment.

Another patient reported their four-month follow-up appointment had been cancelled several times. When they presented one year and four months later, a total retinal detachment was diagnosed.

The findings reinforce fears expressed by UK optometrists , with nearly half (43%) raising serious concerns over the number of patients they are seeing who could lose sight unnecessarily as a result long NHS waiting lists and cancelled appointments.

An additional poll of 498 members of the public with macular eye conditions& who have required medical treatment in the past two years reveals:

  • Nearly six in 10 (57%) have experienced a delay whilst waiting for an NHS appointment and/or treatment
  • Nearly half (47%) have experienced a loss or decline in vision during this time
  • At the time of the survey one in 10 patients had waited more than a year to be seen or were still waiting
  • 41% of patients report being frightened of losing their vision entirely
  • 30% feel abandoned by the NHS or authorities

Chief Executive of eye charity, Macular Society, Cathy Yelf, says they are receiving dozens of phone calls each month from people who are worried that they are going to lose vision because of delays.

Ms Yelf said: “People are terrified at the prospect of losing vision. The ones who contact us are the ones who are actively trying to solve the problem. We have no idea how many people sit at home, quietly losing their vision and not making a fuss about it. It is a tragedy that people lose sight when there is a treatment that will help keep their vision for longer, but it is not given in time.

“If the NHS can’t cope with the number of patients then they should be assessing the risk of each patient, and find an alternative place for their treatment. This can’t wait, this is an urgent situation and people will lose their vision if they are not treated properly.”

Hundreds of respondents went on to share their experiences of waiting for appointments:

  • “My vision deteriorated to such an extent that I went around armed with three different magnifying glasses. I really worried that the achievements of the previous years in maintaining my sight would be lost permanently”
  • “I’ve had no communication from the NHS, since my optician found the hole, and referred me four months ago. The success window is six months. I’m now faced with paying £7.5k privately, which means going into debt”
  • “[I am] so worried that I have to constantly phone to get an appointment ie a cancellation, as no appointments have been sent out for over two years”
  • “It’s so scary when you know that getting rapid treatment is essential to prevent scarring and permanent sight loss, yet when you ring for an appointment, you’re told the next available date is months in the future. You feel totally helpless”.

Under the current system, many appointments take place in hospital, but waiting times for treatment could be significantly reduced if more care was provided by community optometrists who are qualified and already provide follow-up services in some parts of the country.

Chief Executive of the AOP, Adam Sampson said: “We are facing a health emergency. Hospitals are overrun, and the NHS is collapsing under patient need. There are good treatments available for common age-related eye conditions like macular degeneration but many Hospital Trusts simply do not have the capacity to deliver services. Optometry is ideally placed to take away some of that burden – optometrists are already qualified to provide many of the extended services needed and are available on every high street, so patients can be treated closer to home.

“It’s incomprehensible and absolutely tragic that patients are waiting, losing their vision, in many parts of the country because of the way eye healthcare is commissioned. With a national strategy for eye care we can take a critical stride towards improving care and outcomes for patients.”

The AOP’s campaign is calling on members of the public and the optometry profession to contact their constituency MP to support the demand for change, with more information available at


For more information, please contact Serena Box, PR and Media Manager, at the Association of Optometrists, [email protected] or telephone 020 7549 2040.

Notes to Editors

Association of Optometrists

The Association of Optometrists (AOP) is the leading representative membership organisation for optometrists in the UK. We support over 80% of practising optometrists, to fulfil their professional roles to protect the nation’s eye health. For more information, visit

Macular Society

Every day, around 300 people are diagnosed with macular disease. It’s the biggest cause of sight loss in the UK. Macular disease is cruel and isolating. It steals your sight, your independence, and your ability to do the things you love.

It can affect people of any age – even children – but not enough is known about why, and there is still no cure. There is only one way to beat macular disease for good. We must fund much more research now, until we find a cure, or find treatments that stop it in its tracks.

Together we can fund the research that will find the cure. Together we can make sure the next generation won’t have their sight, confidence, and love of life stolen from them by macular disease.