Imagine that the entire population of Gloucestershire was waiting for an ophthalmology appointment. And then imagine the outcome if those appointments never happened. Not just for the Gloucestershire people themselves, who might lose their sight or have to live in extreme discomfort or distress. But for the NHS and other healthcare providers facing even greater and more crucial demand, and the local public service providers, who would have to support them and their additional needs, and for the myriad other people, services and organisations involved. It would be catastrophic.
You don’t have to imagine it. There are currently 640,000 people on the NHS England waiting list for ophthalmology appointments. That’s the same number of people who live in Gloucestershire. The demand is overwhelming. Those numbers tell us this, and our members tell us. More than three quarters of College members have said that NHS ophthalmology departments don’t have the required numbers of consultants to meet their patient needs, and almost two thirds of them are using locums to cover vacancies.
Ophthalmologists are feeling the pressure. One in four are planning to leave the profession in the next five years, exacerbating the shortages. We desperately need more ophthalmology training places so that we have the doctors we need to meet future patient demand. NHS England’s Long Term Workforce Plan is a step in the right direction – with its commitment to funding for more medical school places and a future increase in specialty training places. But it’s just a small step. We’re pushing for specific funding commitments for specialty training places, including ophthalmology, so we can plan for a sustainable future workforce.
Waiting lists are only part of the challenge. Innovation and technology are passing us by – ophthalmology services and patients could benefit significantly from efficient digital processes. Like most health and social care provision in this country – eyecare is disjointed. Patient safety is put at risk, and time and money are wasted when services are duplicated or missed. We want to see services integrated across primary, secondary and community care, so that patients have an improved experience and better outcomes.
We’ve seen that there’s a place for independent sector provision but it definitely shouldn’t be at the expense of investment in NHS ophthalmic workforce and infrastructure. Commissioning and governance of independent sector involvement both need deeper consideration and we’re calling on NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care to make these necessary reforms.
Our members are passionate professionals. They want the best possible outcomes for their patients, and a sustainable future for their specialty. Achieving this means much better coordination, and we believe that the solution is a national plan for eyecare in England. That would give everyone access to the right care, when and where they need it. Which is essentially what the NHS was established to do.
And that’s why we’re working with our partners in The Eyes Have It this Westminster Eye Health Day.