Our vision is simply too important to ignore. It’s time to promote better eye health

As Co-Chair of the APPG on Eye Health and Visual Impairment, I was pleased to lead the first debate in over 25 years on Glaucoma, highlighting issues that I have long campaigned on.

The importance of good eye health cannot be overstated. Visual impairment and sight loss cost the UK economy a staggering £36 billion each year, yet 22 people are still allowed to lose their vision to preventable causes each week.

One of the primary reasons for this is glaucoma, a group of eye diseases which damage the optic nerve usually due to changes in pressure inside the eye. Typically, glaucoma presents no initial symptoms, slowly affecting the periphery of your vision at first. This means that hundreds of thousands of people in the UK currently have glaucoma – which can ultimately lead to vision loss – but are entirely unaware that they do.

Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness worldwide and delayed follow-up is resulting in deterioration of vision and patients losing sight. Vision lost to glaucoma cannot be recovered, but with early detection, careful monitoring and regular treatment, most people retain useful sight for life.

Optometrists have a key role to play in preventing this deterioration because they can spot the early signs of glaucoma during a routine eye test. For patients with stable glaucoma, optometrists also have an ongoing role in monitoring their eye health and helping them to manage their condition.

Alarmingly, a fifth of the population still don’t know how often they should visit their optician for a routine check-up and the same proportion either can’t remember their last eye examination or have never had one. I find this truly shocking. I know individuals whose lives have been saved through routine eye examinations and we must do more to highlight the importance of regular testing.

For those with glaucoma or suspected glaucoma who are referred on to hospital, long NHS waiting lists, exacerbated by the pandemic, remain a problem. Figures show there are currently 650,000 people waiting for NHS ophthalmology appointments which eliminates the possibility of fast treatment almost instantly. The Government must do more to bring these numbers down.

A potential solution which I discussed during the debate is an effective community glaucoma service in all four nations, delivered by primary care optometrists in the heart of our communities.

In Northern Ireland there are two glaucoma referral and refinement pathways in place. In contrast to England, these are available in all community practices as long as clinicians have the correct accreditation in glaucoma care. Through these services, patients have their glaucoma tests completed in the community, rather than in hospitals, and results are then shared securely with the patient’s ophthalmologist. This joined up approach helps to streamline the patient experience and ensures that secondary care waiting lists do not swell any further. This is an example of community optometrists and ophthalmologists working together for the benefit of the patient.

Northern Ireland also has an impressive Ocular Hypertension monitoring service. This scheme allows optometrists to manage patients in the community who would previously have been seen in the hospital eye services. Over 2,000 patients have been discharged to this scheme to date which has helped free up capacity in secondary care to manage more complex cases.

These successful services show that community optometry, alongside other primary care providers, are responsible for delivering the shift from secondary to community care. What’s more,they can do so at next to no cost to the taxpayer given the capacity already exists. Surely that’s a no brainer?

Northern Ireland’s eye care services are by no means perfect, but I maintain other parts of the UK could learn a thing or two from us when it comes to glaucoma monitoring. England, in particular, would stand to benefit massively from implementing similar community glaucoma services and I hope colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care explore this carefully.

Our vision is simply too important to ignore. I hope this debate encourages us to prioritise eye care services and work together to promote better eye health.

Jim Shannon MP

Jim Shannon is the Democratic Unionist Party MP for Strangford, and was elected in 2010. He currently undertakes the roles of Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), and Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights).