Correcting the nation’s sight

Sight is considered to be the most precious of our senses. Yet, all too often, it is taken for granted and the health of our eyes left to chance, as Peter Archer reports

Every day 100 people in the UK start losing their sight, adding to the two million already living with problems seeing.

Sight loss affects people of all ages but, as we get older, we are increasingly likely to experience difficulty with our vision.

With an ageing population and the onset of a diabetes crisis, bringing with it eye health complications, the number of people with sight loss is set to double to nearly four million by 2050.

However, experts say more than 50 per cent of sight loss could be avoided through improved eye care and early detection of problems.

Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), says: “Research tells us that sight is the sense people fear losing the most, and RNIB has current evidence to show that late diagnosis and poor access to treatments is unnecessarily robbing thousands of people of their sight.

In a country such as the UK, it’s unbelievable that so large a number of people face the devastating impact of poor sight

“In a country such as the UK, it’s unbelievable that such a large number of people, who could be treated, face the devastating impact of poor sight.”

The Government has made eye health a public health priority and pledged to track three major causes of sight loss – glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.

The Department of Health says patients deserve high-quality health care on the NHS. “That’s why we have prioritised eye health under our reforms to help ensure that vision problems are identified, treated and prevented as early as possible,” says a spokesperson.

“A new eye health indicator on preventable sight loss was developed in partnership with a variety of professional bodies and charities, including the RNIB. Clinicians, opticians and other health professionals now have to work together, and focus on preventing poor eye health and delivering excellent care to their patients.”

Ms Alexander acknowledges the Government’s role. “The introduction of the new eye health indicator in the Public Health Outcomes Framework shows some commitment to improving the eye health of the nation,” she says. “This is a major breakthrough for tackling avoidable sight loss and could potentially make significant savings for the NHS.”

Eye care costs, according to a study for the RNIB by Access Economics, are expected to rise to £7.9 billion by 2013, representing a largely avoidable drain on NHS resources.

Failure to invest in early detection and treatment of eye conditions means increased spending on health, social care, education and training to support people in the later stages of eye disease. Therefore, there is a sound moral and economic case for early intervention. Australian research has shown a four-fold return on investment in early eye care intervention.

“We will continue to fight to ensure patients have access to safe and effective sight-saving treatments on the NHS, and identify and challenge poor service provision wherever we find it,” says Ms Alexander.

“But it’s also important that we encourage people across the country to look after their own eye health and the most important thing we can all do is to go for regular eye tests.”

Some 20 million people in the UK fail to have their eyes checked at least once every two years, as recommended, and one in ten have never had an eye examination, according to The Eyecare Trust’s State of the Nation’s Eyes report.

And experts agree that smoking and obesity can double the probability of sight loss. So not smoking and a healthy diet with regular exercise can contribute to improved eye health as well as overall fitness.