National Eye Health Week, from September 22 to 28, is when the UK eyecare community promotes the importance of eye tests and looking after your eyes as a key part of general health, writes Lilian Anekwe
There is stark evidence that most of the UK public are unaware they need regular eye tests and do not prioritise their eye health. Some 8 per cent of adults in the UK have never had an eye test.
It’s not clear why people are reluctant to have their eyes tested. National Health Service statistics show that even though the NHS provides free eye tests for children, older people, those with certain health problems and people on low incomes, they still aren’t getting their eyes tested. In Scotland, where eye tests are provided free for everyone, uptake is still low.
The reasons why are complex, but it’s a problem that does seem to affect eye health uniquely. NHS figures show 2.9 million children had their eyes tested between 2012 and 2013, which was the lowest proportion of all eye tests in ten years. By contrast, 7.8 million children were seen by an NHS dentist between 2011 and 2013, an increase of 0.5 per cent compared with March 2006.
This has a devastating impact on people’s vision, on society and on the economy. Figures compiled by the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) show that currently 1.8 million people in the UK are living with sight loss. The amount spent indirectly on vision loss in the UK amounts to £5.1 billion a year. This includes £2.4 billion linked to the cost of providing informal care and £1.9 billion associated with lower employment rates.
This situation needs to be tackled now. The UK’s population is ageing and the incidence of illnesses that are key underlying causes of sight loss, such as obesity and diabetes, is growing. Combined with too few people having their eyes tested, this means that, without action, the number of people with sight problems in the UK is likely to increase dramatically over the next 25 years. The RNIB predicts that by 2020 the number of people with sight loss will rise to more than 2.25 million.
VISION LOSS IS AVOIDABLE
The good news is that more than 50 per cent of vision loss can be avoided – if people have regular eye tests every two years, as recommended by the NHS. It’s never too late and there are initiatives in place, during National Eye Health Week and beyond, to make this change a reality.
The UK’s population is ageing and the incidence of illnesses that are key underlying causes of sight loss, such as obesity and diabetes, is growing
Francesca Marchetti, past-chairwoman of National Eye Health Week, says: “The message about the importance of having an eye test hasn’t been getting through thus far. People still renege on their appointments for an eye test. I’m not sure why, whether it is fear, a lack of awareness or education, or naivety. But what it means is that people are making do with poor vision and that’s unacceptable.
“This is why it’s important that during National Eye Health Week we have people from across the board all saying the same message: have your eyes tested. It’s not commercially driven, it’s health driven. Nobody makes any money out of it, nobody owns the week, there’s no sales or political agenda – the whole profession works together to promote eye health.”
Another example is the UK Vision Strategy, which was launched in 2008 and is supported by government. Katherine Raven, UK Vision Strategy senior manager, says the aim is to unite organisations across the UK that want to take action on issues relating to vision.
“The refreshed UK Vision Strategy was launched last year and will run until 2018. It focuses on three priority outcomes: that everyone in the UK looks after their eyes and sight, that everyone with an eye condition receives timely treatment and support, and that people with sight loss can fully participate in society,” she says.
“We have many initiatives underway across the UK to help move eye health and sight loss up the agenda. This includes our work with the Royal College of General Practitioners to enable GPs to identify sight loss at an earlier stage, and ensure people get the treatment and support they need more quickly. Campaigns such as National Eye Health Week are an excellent way of raising public awareness about the importance of taking care of our eyes and having regular sight tests.”
During National Eye Health Week the optometry profession will provide eye tests and information on maintaining eye health through good nutrition, avoiding smoking and protecting the eyes from damaging sunlight.
These initiatives and increased public awareness can be an important springboard to raise the number of people who have their eyes tested, and reduce the number of people living with preventable sight loss.