Eye patients forced to go private or go blind due to soaring NHS waiting lists

One woman had to pay £3,000 for emergency eye treatment or risk going blind due to three-week NHS wait

Rebecca Thomas
Health Correspondent
Thursday 23 November 2023 15:53 GMT
Rishi Sunak blames NHS staff demanding more pay for waiting times

Patients are being forced to pay for private eye care or risk going blind as the backlog for NHS treatment soars.

Waiting times for NHS ophthalmology services, which accounts for almost 10 per cent of the 7.8 million national backlog, have forced 81 per cent of patients to pay for private healthcare, according to a survey by the Association of Optometrists (AOP).

The increasing waiting times come as The Independent reveals the story of a woman who was forced to pay £3,000 for private care after she faced a three-week wait for emergency sight-saving treatment on the NHS. If she had waited just one more week there was a 30 per cent chance she would’ve gone blind.

Writing for The Independent, she said: “I frequently think about those other distressed souls that I shared the emergency waiting room with a few weekends ago. How many of them had savings to raid or a supportive family to offer help?

“I wonder which of them needed emergency treatment that day to save their sight and who was offered the appointment that I turned down. The one that quite possibly came too late.”

Two-thirds of optometrists warn patients have been waiting for more than a year for hospital care

Some 640,736 people are waiting for NHS ophthalmology appointments in England alone – an increase of 12,000 since March – with 20,000 waiting for more than a year.

Adam Sampson, chief executive of the AOP, warned eye care in the UK was in a desperate situation with many “forced to spend their savings on private treatment to avoid losing their sight”.

The organisation has said waiting times for hospital care could be significantly reduced if optometrists were funded to provide some NHS hospital services.

Earlier this year, NHS England sent out a letter admitting that “ophthalmology is currently the busiest outpatient speciality” and promised to give patients access to new diagnostic services to cut wait times before they see a consultant.

In its survey of 1,000 optometrists, the AOP found 79 per cent said patients had experienced delays of 12 months or more for hospital care, follow-up appointments or treatments. This was up from 72 per cent on last year.

Marsha de Cordova, Labour MP for Battersea, and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eye Health and Vision Impairment, has been calling for an eye health strategy in the UK.

She said: “England is the only country in the UK without an eye health strategy. Despite the worrying backlog, the government still refuses to introduce a strategy that will ensure better health outcomes for patients.

“A national approach will remove the postcode lottery of care and reduce the risk of patients getting stuck on hospital waiting lists and in turn prevent the avoidable and irreversible sight loss we’re seeing today.”

Mr Adamson has written to junior health minister Dame Andrea Leadsom asking for urgent action, and to all MPs setting out the “crisis” within the sector.

Dame Andrea Leadsom has received a letter Association of Optometrists calling for ‘urgent action’

In a letter to Dame Leadsom, he said: “The NHS should always be free at the point of need. And in the middle of this turmoil, it is deeply concerning that the ministerial health team have again changed significantly following the latest cabinet reshuffle.

“Optometry has already been recognised as the right solution and a way out of this emergency. Optometrists are qualified to provide many of the extended services needed to cut waiting times while also being available on high streets across the UK.”

“But we need action now to end the variability in commissioning which is blunting the impact of eye care services in England. Which is why we’re calling on the new parliamentary under-secretary of state for primary care and public health, Dame Andrea Leadsom, to take urgent steps and double down on the commitments made by her predecessor, Neil O’Brien.”

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