Peter Gibson: ‘A national eyecare strategy could see England evade a tidal wave of avoidable blindness’

In England, we face a tidal wave of avoidable blindness. 

That might sound drastic, but according to the RNIB an estimated 250 people a day are beginning to lose their sight. As our population ages it’s expected that one in five of us will live with sight loss during our lifetime.

Our eyesight is something all of us would be fearful to lose. For some, sight loss comes suddenly and for others, it’s part of a long-term health condition. Either way it inevitably has a profound impact on daily life. 

Sight loss is linked to increased risk of loneliness and social isolation which in turn leads to other damaging health conditions, including clinical depression, diabetes, dementia and stroke.

And yet 50% of sight loss is avoidable, preventable, and treatable. Up to 2 million people each year turn up to A&E each year with eye injuries and eye health problems but those with experience of providing Community Urgent Eye Care services in high street opticians tell us that most of those could be treated by optometrists in your local optical practice. 

It’s not just the personal cost either. Sight loss brings with it a huge economic cost. 

In 2019, the annual cost of sight loss and blindness to the UK economy was estimated at £36 billion. Due to the pandemic, this is expected to rise by £2.5 billion between 2020 and 2024. Preventable sight loss can also force people out of work sooner than they would like, preventing them from driving or participating in their everyday activities. 

We all know that eye tests help us make sure we are wearing the right glasses or contact lenses if we need them, but they can also detect a whole range of eye conditions and vision problems that can cause sight loss if left untreated. 

As an Officer for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Eye Health, I know that many eye issues are currently going untreated and many people sadly learn that their disease or injury has progressed to the point of permanent sight loss. And many of us don’t even get our eyes tested regularly, letting damaging conditions go undetected. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, we have many of the solutions and infrastructure already in our primary and community care services. What we need to do is bring them together in one unified pathway to truly maximise their effectiveness and ability to care for patients. 

In England, we lack this standardised, national Community Urgent Eye Care service, resulting in a “postcode lottery” of services throughout the country and a backlog of eyecare treatment across the NHS. Crucially, it means that not all patients can or will receive high-quality, timely care in the community, or know where to go for treatment. 

NHS high street optometrists can detect and treat most conditions, and as a primary care provider, already have the ability to refer more serious conditions directly to their local hospital eye service.

In one year alone, Specsavers, the well-known high street optometrists, tested the pressure of 12 million eyes, and assessed almost 1 million people who are at risk of glaucoma because a close relative has received a glaucoma diagnosis. The tests an optometrist can perform give early indication of problems with our general health, like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, rheumatoid arthritis, some kinds of cancer and dementia, as well as eye-related problems such as glaucoma, a group of eye diseases which damage the optic nerve, due to raised pressure inside the eye. 

If glaucoma is in the family, close relatives can be up to ten times more likely to develop it. Despite this, there is no general population screening programme for glaucoma. 

High-street, primary care optometrists are well-equipped and many have additional specialist training and are therefore able to play a key part in solving the eye care crisis we now face. They also show the true size of this tidal wave we face. 

This week is National Eye Health Week and I believe we must look ahead to the challenges facing us and develop a national eyecare strategy that will focus efforts to deliver better patient outcomes, cut waiting times, and reduce the pressure on already-struggling parts of the NHS. 

Such a strategy, as many MPs have now called for, will maximise our network of highly skilled primary and community care providers. Optometrists are a fundamental part of the eye health network and can do so much more to help. The clinical skills and diagnostic technology are already in place to not only detect but also manage eye disease in the community. 

Not only would a national strategy improve access and provide consistent models of eyecare across the country, but it would also improve understanding of the importance of eyecare. Raising awareness and improving pathways to care could be transformative on a personal and societal level – sparing people the practical and psychological impacts of sight loss and allowing them to stay in work, maintain social engagement and the activities they enjoy. 

Without a national eyecare strategy, the problems will only continue to worsen. 

It’s time to see the problem clearly and take action to help save the eyesight of thousands of people. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.