RCOphth President Bernie Chang responds to the announcement of the Elective Recovery Taskforce and drive towards greater use of independent sector capacity.
Responding to the announcement from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on the establishment of an Elective Recovery Taskforce which will look at how to cut backlogs, including through the use of independent sector capacity and community diagnostic centres, President of The Royal College of Ophthalmologists Professor Bernie Chang said:
“We look forward to contributing constructively to this taskforce to ensure we bring down long ophthalmology backlogs. Given the taskforce will particularly focus on the use of independent sector capacity, we are well placed to share the lessons from ophthalmology given the rapid increase in independent sector provision of cataract surgery in recent years.
“Growing waiting lists are a huge concern for ophthalmology units and all parts of the NHS, so it is welcome that government is prioritising tackling these backlogs through the establishment of this taskforce. There are now over 650,000 patients waiting for their first appointment to see an ophthalmologist, which is almost 10% of the entire backlog. This will lead to a tide of avoidable blindness if we don’t take urgent action.
“We are particularly concerned by the growing backlogs for ophthalmology outpatient appointments, which have increased by 59% compared to pre-pandemic. These are crucial for diagnosis and ongoing disease management, and therefore preventing avoidable irreversible sight loss. The taskforce needs a strong focus on bringing down outpatient backlogs, as well as waits for procedures.
“It is notable how strong a focus the taskforce is placing on greater use of independent sector capacity. Ophthalmology is one of the specialties where independent sector providers are playing a large role already. Our analysis has shown that independent sector providers are now delivering almost half of NHS-funded cataract procedures in England.
“While this capacity has helped to bring down cataract backlogs, it is not an answer to the long outpatient backlogs facing ophthalmology. The growing role of independent sector providers has also created challenges for the sustainability of NHS ophthalmology services, including surgical training opportunities. We have worked closely with NHS England and independent sector providers to address these challenges, including contributing to NHS England’s cataract service specification and developing a collaborative Blueprint for cataract training in the independent sector.
“There are underlying reasons for long backlogs that need long term solutions. We desperately need to expand the ophthalmology workforce, both our consultants as well as the wider multi-professional team. We hope next year’s long term workforce plan commits to the funding needed to addressing these shortfalls. Investment in eye care units so that we have the clinic space and IT infrastructure to deliver joined-up integrated care with optometry are also essential.
“It is welcome that the taskforce has reiterated the important role community diagnostic centres will play in tackling the backlogs. As the largest outpatient specialty in the NHS with over 7.5 million outpatient appointments last year, it is vital that ophthalmology services are supported as part of this programme.”