As we enter an election year, it is imperative we build on the momentum from 2023 to strengthen ophthalmology services, training and research in the UK.
We made significant progress last year, with our profile and influence growing substantially, having been quoted by BBC Radio 4, The Financial Times, Health Service Journal, and The Telegraph, in the last half of 2023 alone. Our work was also cited extensively by the influential think tank Reform, in their report on follow-up backlogs.
But it is the more concrete progress that is particularly heartening. In June, NHS England (NHSE) published a Long Term Workforce Plan that, alongside plans to double medical school places by 2031, commits to ‘a commensurate increase in specialty training places’ – something the College has long called for. Likewise, following discussion with the Department of Health and Social Care, August saw commitments to monitor and evaluate the impact of the independent sector in the Elective Recovery Taskforce implementation plan.
And, in December I spoke to MPs about the need for a national plan for eyecare in England as part of Westminster Eye Health Day, an event we co-hosted with other members of The Eyes Have It Partnership.
All eyes on 2024
We now enter a pivotal time for the future of ophthalmology services in the UK and, by setting out the actions we will take this year, I hope to demonstrate that the College’s ambition for change seeks to meet the task we face.
In 2024, we will outline the specific increase in ophthalmology training places that is needed and viable in each UK nation. Tackling issues of chronic under-resourcing and IT shortcomings will be crucial to achieving this.
We will publish a vision for integration with the College of Optometrists (CoO), setting out what needs to happen to enable more seamless patient care.
An important part of this is resolving the IT challenges that are hampering effective communication between optometry and ophthalmology. In 2023, we began work with NHSE, the CoO and manufacturers to develop shared standards for image interoperability between major suppliers. Making progress in agreeing these standards and putting them into practice will be key over the coming year.
We are also making headway in Wales to develop a blueprint for sustainable NHS ophthalmology services underpinned by interoperable patient record and referral systems via our engagement in the development of a National Clinical Strategy for Ophthalmology.
We will continue our work to find collaborative solutions to the advent of rising independent sector provision in England. Funding streams, workforce and infrastructure for high-volume cataract services have traditionally supported NHS ophthalmology departments to deliver comprehensive services, including more complex work. With most NHS cataract operations in England now outsourced to independent sector providers, fractured, resource-strapped NHS ophthalmology services are emerging in many areas. I have made these points consistently and robustly to NHSE over the last eight months, and it is vital they now produce a plan for how we effectively commission and deliver comprehensive ophthalmology services.
Bringing greater political attention to these issues of workforce capacity, integration of services, and the uncoordinated expansion of independent sector providers of NHS-funded care is imperative. That is why, in the Spring, we will launch a manifesto outlining key steps the next government needs to take to secure the sustainability of NHS eye care services.
I am committed to doing all I can to ensure we have a well-resourced NHS ophthalmology service and workforce that is able to deliver timely, effective, and comprehensive care for patients into the future.
Our shared ambition will not be easily achieved, but, as those working on the frontline in ophthalmology know, it is desperately needed.