As part of our commitment to advocate for the ophthalmology workforce and foster effective primary and secondary eyecare integration, we co-hosted the annual Parliamentary event, Westminster Eye Health Day, on 11 December. The event, held in collaboration with The Eyes Have It and hosted by Marsha de Cordova MP, aimed to highlight the challenges in eye care services to policymakers and elevate eye care on the political agenda.
This year marked a significant development with the launch of the “Laying the Foundations for the Future of Eye Health in England” report, identifying critical areas requiring attention in light of the increasing demand for eye health services within the NHS and the imperative to prevent life-changing sight loss.
Key highlights from the report:
Huge demand on ophthalmology services:
- In 2022/23, there were nearly nine million ophthalmology outpatient attendances across the UK.
- More than 640,000 people in England are on ophthalmology waiting lists (September 2023), forming more than 8% of the entire NHS backlog, with 20,000 waiting over a year for treatment.
- A report by the Reform thinktank in October highlighted ophthalmology as the specialty with the most patients waiting for follow-up appointments, posing a risk of irreversible sight loss.
Need for a national plan for eye care in England:
- Sight loss’s significant impact and the strain on NHS services necessitate urgent attention to eye care.
- A national plan for eye care in England is crucial to promote integrated primary and secondary services, ensuring accessible and timely care.
- As part of this plan, there is a call to expand the ophthalmology workforce, use technology for better integration, and reform the commissioning of independent sector providers.
Expansion of the ophthalmology workforce:
- There is a severe shortage of consultants, with 76% of NHS ophthalmology departments currently insufficiently staffed.
- Almost two-thirds (65%) are relying on locums, leading to concerns about the sustainability of the workforce.
- Urgent action is needed to increase ophthalmology training places to ensure a sustainable future workforce.
Better integration of eye care services:
- Current IT obstacles hinder efficient data sharing between optometry and ophthalmology, leading to wasted time and reduced patient treatment.
- A coordinated effort is required to establish standards for electronic patient records and ophthalmic imaging.
- The development of a national electronic eye care referral system, as in Wales, is advocated for efficient, higher-volume patient pathways.
Reform of commissioning of independent sector providers:
- The independent sector has seen a surge in delivering NHS-funded ophthalmology care, raising concerns about sustainability and workforce training.
- Effective commissioning and training provisions are essential to secure the next generation of ophthalmologists.
- The focus should be on balancing the use of the independent sector with investment in the NHS ophthalmic workforce and infrastructure.
Marsha de Cordova MP emphasised the urgency of addressing eye health challenges, highlighting that current ophthalmology waiting lists numbers in England. She stressed the need for a national eye health strategy, pointing out the lack of attention to eye health and sight loss. The report, in her view, provides a blueprint for a future-ready workforce, emphasising the importance of increasing ophthalmology specialty training places and enhancing IT connectivity.
College President Professor Ben Burton spoke to Radio 4’s In Touch programme before the event, stressing the issue of senior consultant shortages and expressing his satisfaction with the Government’s commitment to addressing training gap. Ben outlined the need for transformation in private sector commissioning, and for a plan to expand the ophthalmology workforce, integrate optometrists and IT, and strategically deploy the independent sector where necessary.
In summary, Westminster Eye Health Day 2023 and the launch of the report underline the critical need for action to meet the demand for eye health services, prevent irreversible sight loss, and create a sustainable future for ophthalmology in England. We remain dedicated to advocating for reforms and influencing policy to ensure the best possible eye care outcomes for patients across the nation.