It was reported recently that some people are losing their sight because hospital eye units do not have enough capacity to meet demand and as a result a number of patients are waiting too long for an appointment. The RNIB's report: Saving money, losing sight, surveyed staff in hospital eye units across England and found that 80% of staff who responded said their clinic was unable to meet existing demand. 37% said patients sometimes lost their sight because their treatment was delayed by a lack of capacity.
The College of Optometrists is urging commissioners of health services to improve community eye care and improve integration of community and hospital IT systems as ways of addressing this issue.
The role that optometrists can play in expanding capacity and improving the use of NHS resources, shouldn't be underestimated. The NHS is helping more people to combat eye disease than ever before. However, because we are discovering new treatments for what were once incurable conditions and because our population is ageing, demand for NHS eye care is rising significantly. Smarter commissioning of eye care services using optometrists to treat more people in the community and dovetailing this with care provided in hospitals meets this demand effectively. Across the UK, community optometrists are already working with commissioners to reduce the number of people referred to hospitals and to treat people close to home. This boosts capacity and lets hospital specialists focus on providing care to those that require the specialist skills of ophthalmologists.
To help improve capacity, quality and efficiency in eye care services, we have jointly published, with the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, guidance for commissioners of glaucoma services, age-related macular generation, low vision and urgent eye care services. We hope that implementing this guidance, which draws on the experience of most innovative services in the UK, will help commissioners of eye care meet rising demand.
Access to eye care services in the community varies significantly across England and this urgently needs to be addressed. For example, whereas all patients in Scotland and Wales can get urgent eye problems seen and treated by local optometrists who are funded to provide this service, patients in many parts of England have no option but to use hospital services or to pay for care which should be free at the point of delivery as well as accessible.
Another factor that can help improve the current situation is better use of IT - we think this can significantly improve the efficiency and capacity of eye care services. In the College's report, Better data, better care, we showed how integrating community optometry and hospital eye service IT systems has enabled optometrists to improve capacity and prevent sight loss by speeding up urgent referrals to hospital eye units, reducing unnecessary referrals and saving NHS money.
We also urge commissioners to work closely with the Local Eye Health Networks, recently launched by NHS England across the country, which bring together NHS commissioners, ophthalmologists, optometrists and patient groups to commission better services. By working with these local experts, commissioners can understand the demand for eye health services in their area and how best to meet it.