Opticians enjoy a higher profile than ever before, ubiquitous on the high street and on TV. Glasses come in a million fashionable varieties and contact lenses are easier to use than ever before. Many people qualify for free eye tests, from the under 16s to the over 60s, people on certain benefits or with specific medical conditions and everyone living in Scotland.
Despite this, the nation’s eye health is a cause of concern. Every day about 250 people start to lose their sight in the UK. More than two million live with sight loss that is severe enough to have an impact on their daily lives.
Why do more people not prioritise eye health in the same way they might go to a GP or a dentist? There is a broad lack of public understanding of eye health and its relationship with general physical health. National Eye Health Week was established to help raise awareness, promoting the importance of eye tests and how they can help reduce avoidable sight loss. Making eye health visible, including the £28- billion cost of sight loss to the UK economy, remains a priority.
Common barriers to frequent eye tests
Social inequalities that affect healthcare generally also apply to eye health. “Certain deprived areas of the UK have less access to eye health services. Evidence shows that, even if services are readily available, the populations in such areas are far less likely to access them,” says the College of Optometrists.
High street opticians and NHS clinicians need to work more closely together to monitor outcomes and patient satisfaction to build evidence that will help to commission effective eye services
Although many people do not have to pay for eye tests, public perception remains that a visit to the optician will prove expensive, including the cost of spectacles, contact lenses or eye treatments.
Deterioration in eyesight can go almost unnoticed until it is well advanced. Many people believe that this is an unavoidable consequence of age or work, and do not appreciate that a decline in sight may be managed or even corrected with appropriate care.
This is particularly true of children and young people. Eyes continue developing through childhood so if problems are treated early it can make a lasting difference. Eye Health UK estimates that there are 1.6 million children with an undiagnosed eye problem. Parents are unsure about how early and how often to take their children to eye tests. All local authorities should provide vision screening in schools at school entry age 4 to 5 years.
How to make caring for eyes a national priority
High street opticians have certainly raised the profile of eye health in recent years, with clever slogans such as “Should’ve gone to…” entering everyday use. But this commercial drive risks reinforcing the perception of opticians as a business, rather than a public health concern. Significantly, the NHS’s Five Year Forward View does not acknowledge eye health and sight loss as a key priority.
The State of the Nation Eye Health 2017 report by Royal National Institute of Blind People and Specsavers called for better links between high street opticians and the NHS as a way of improving eyecare. This includes sharing of information with primary care and hospital eye services, requiring investment in IT infrastructure. High street opticians and NHS clinicians need to work more closely together to monitor outcomes and patient satisfaction to build evidence that will help to commission effective eye services.
There is broad support to make eyecare a priority in the UK. The question is: how this can be achieved at a time of budgetary constraints in the NHS? The answer must be that failing to act now will cost so much more in the long run.