A visit to the high street optician should be as routine as a dental check-up. But many people wait for signs of sight loss before booking an eye test, which may be due to a lack of awareness that your family optician does so much more than check your vision.
While 80 per cent of those asked expect an optician to be checking for eye health conditions, only 27 per cent expect their general health to be covered within the appointment. More than 80 per cent of the nation are not aware that an eye test can detect signs of cardiovascular disease, one of the major causes of death in the UK.
Less than half the time taken during an eye appointment involves testing sight. Most of the time is spent assessing indicators of wider eye health, including cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration, and general health issues, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
Dr Nigel Best, clinical spokesperson at Specsavers, says: “Eyes are a window into your general health. Putting off having an eye test potentially prevents your optician from detecting signs of eye health problems or other medical issues at an early stage. We know that early intervention is important in the management and successful treatment of many conditions.”
Susan Cooper, 69, from Milton Keynes, was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes after her son raised concerns about her driving. She was initially hesitant about visiting the opticians. “I’m very independent, and although several people had mentioned that my driving hadn’t been too good, I kept putting off the visit, believing my eyesight to be fine,” she says.
“The team at Specsavers spotted cataracts straight away. It wasn’t until they asked me to cover my better eye that I realised how much my vision was impaired. When I think back to how my eyesight had deteriorated, and how much worse things could have been for me, I feel so relieved that I did eventually visit the opticians. I just wish I’d done something about it sooner.”
The 21st-century optician has the training and technology to work in partnership with NHS clinicians, spotting early signs of possible illness that will enable patients to be diagnosed and treated before a condition takes hold.
A routine eye test at Specsavers in Rustington helped detect a brain tumour in teenager Freya Angilley. ‘‘It was a total whirlwind,’’ says mother Denise. ‘‘I booked Freya in for an appointment and I told the optician she had been having headaches and kept being sick. We thought it was just hormones kicking in, but we knew something was wrong when he skipped past the ‘ABC’ [Snellen chart] tests and started looking at the back of her eye.”
Freya was rushed to hospital in London and underwent emergency surgery the following day to reduce the swelling in her skull and to remove a dangerous tumour.
“We were just in absolute shock, especially when she came back from the MRI scan. Then to have her on a blue light ambulance travelling to London and to be told she needed an emergency operation was very scary.”
Following further surgery and a year of radiotherapy and chemotherapy, Freya has since made a full recovery and has just completed her GCSEs.
A new generation of optometrists is helping to shape the future of the medicalisation of high street optometry. Raimonda Bullaj, 25, is currently studying for her Masters degree, does some work at a Newmedica ophthalmology clinic and practises at Specsavers and at the charity SeeAbility. Her aim is to have her own Specsavers store. “They have been extremely helpful and supportive of everything I have done so far,” she says.
All Specsavers UK stores are able to deliver additional eye care services provided by qualified optometrists. Customers can get help for a range of common eye conditions instead of waiting for an appointment with a GP or at hospital. Not only do customers receive the care that they need promptly, but this also helps to alleviate the pressure on hard-pressed NHS staff.
Services available at Specsavers include management of a range of conditions, such as red or watery eyes, dry eye, sticky eye or any sudden changes in vision, such as flashing lights or an increase in floaters. In many stores, care is provided by Specsavers opticians on behalf of the NHS, which means that there is no cost to the customer.
The 3,500 or so optometrists at Specsavers have between them completed more than 10,000 postgraduate accreditations since 2017 in detecting and monitoring glaucoma, cataracts and other eye health conditions from organisations, including Cardiff University and the College of Optometrists.
When I think back to how my eyesight had deteriorated, and how much worse things could have been for me, I feel so relieved that I did eventually visit the opticians. I just wish I’d done something about it sooner
Doug Perkins, Specsavers co-founder and an optometrist for more than 50 years, says: “Specsavers has long been a champion of the importance of regular eye tests and of general eye health. We are proud to take our clinical expertise a stage further and enhance the level of care we offer patients, with the added benefit of helping to reduce the pressure on GP surgeries and NHS services.”
Optical coherence tomography (OCT) is hospital-grade eye-testing technology which was previously only found in hospital eye departments, but is now available in many high street opticians. Currently more than 150 Specsavers stores have OCT scanners and the plan is for every store to offer OCT within the next two years. OCT produces such a detailed picture of the structures in the eye that it allows optometrists to identify signs of diseases, such as macular degeneration and glaucoma, years earlier than traditional methods.
The OCT scan at Specsavers is used in addition to a thorough eye test, during which the optometrist will use a range of clinical tests and procedures to measure the quality of someone’s vision, as well as taking an overview of the health and function of their eyes and how they work together. The OCT scan, which costs £10, takes just a few seconds and is non-contact and painless.
There are some eye conditions that need advanced medical or surgical care. In such cases, Specsavers can refer the patient to its eye health partner Newmedica, which provides ophthalmology services on behalf of the NHS, at no cost to the patient. With a proven track record of working with the NHS, Newmedica safely and effectively delivers more than 100,000 patient interactions annually from more than 20 locations throughout England.
With an ageing UK population set to increase pressures on the health service and social care over the next few years, Specsavers is well-placed to take a leading role in championing eye health and to support GPs and hospitals through continued, significant investment in training and the latest technology.