MP calls for national strategy for eye health

Nusrat Ghani MP (Conservatives, Wealden) has led a debate in Parliament on preventing avoidable sight loss. Ms Ghani is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eye Health and Visual Impairment.

RNIB, who support the All-Party Group and champion the interests of blind and partially sighted people, estimate that there are almost two million people in the UK living with sight loss. This is predicted to double to around four million people by 2050, due to our ageing population and more people living with conditions that can lead to visual impairment, such as diabetes. Even now, 20 people across the country lose their eyesight every month.

It is estimated that half of sight loss is potentially avoidable. Glaucoma, for example, is the single biggest preventable cause of sight loss. 600,000 people in the UK have it, but half of those are undiagnosed. If detected and treated early, around 90% of people with glaucoma retain useful eyesight for life.

Eye health has received little attention in Parliament during recent years, so Ms Ghani resolved to reverse the trend and hold a 90-minute debate. In the House of Commons Chamber itself, eye health has only been discussed for a total of 12 minutes since 2010. This is despite the fact that a survey in 2014 showed that 86.5% of the public were more fearful of losing their sight than any other sense.

In her speech, Ms Ghani asked the Government to consider developing and implementing a national strategy for eye health in England. There are equivalent strategies for hearing loss and dementia, and eye health strategies are already in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. England is an anomaly.

She said: “Local commissioning must be coupled with national leadership, and leaving it to local commissioners is not working as well as it should – there is significant variation in quality and quantity of services. For example, someone in Luton will wait 15 days between their first attendance at a hospital outpatient clinic and their subsequent cataract surgery. If they were in Swindon, they would wait 180 days.”

She highlighted the opportunity provided by NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plans to bring different parts of the NHS together for greater efficiency and more effective outcomes, but pointed out that of the 44 STPs only 22 currently mention ophthalmology and eye health, a gap which could disappear with a national strategy.

Referring to the situation locally, she spoke of cancelled appointments. In the High Weald Lewes Havens CCG which covers parts of her Wealden constituency, 6.47% of ophthalmology appointments were cancelled by hospitals in 2015/16. Noting that cancelled appointments put people at risk of losing their sight unnecessarily because of delays to treatment, she asked the Government for greater transparency, accountability and responsibility between hospitals and CCGs to make sure that cancelled appointments are as rare as possible.

Ms Ghani also called for eye screening of children to be implemented properly across the country. Some local authorities have yet to commission programmes, and some are decommissioning programmes, when national guidelines provide for a population-based examination of all children to ensure the ‘at risk’ and vulnerable children in the population are reached.

Talking about the effects of sight loss, she said: “We cannot underestimate or understand the hurdles, time and energy it takes just to try to live independently and have access to services that the rest of us do to enable us to live a full life. There is also the importance of technology in this area, and how it must be harnessed to support people with sight loss.”

In his speech, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health David Mowat MP offered to meet with Ms Ghani and RNIB to discuss the points raised in the debate. He said: “I congratulate my honourable friend the Member for Wealden, not only on leading the charge today, but on her work on the APPG more generally. A number of members have made the point this morning that we have not debated eyes and sight in this place very much over the past few years. It is good that we have the time to put that right today, so I congratulate her on doing so.”

Speaking following the debate, Ms Ghani said: “It’s unbelievable that only twelve minutes of time has been spent discussing eye health in the House of Commons in recent years. Over the next few decades, 4 million people will be affected by sight loss. It’s not a small issue and its consequences can affect lives, careers and families.

“With the support of RNIB, I believe that a national strategy for eye health should be created. It would couple local leadership with national direction, allowing local areas to decide what each local areas need but under the umbrella of a national strategy. Half of sight loss is avoidable, so we need all systems go to prevent as much of it as possible – a national strategy would help make that reality.”

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