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RCOphth welcomes extra NHS funding which will help address eye care backlogs

8 September 2021

The Royal College of Ophthalmologists (RCOphth) has welcomed the announcement that the NHS in England will receive an extra £5.4 billion over the next six months to support its response to COVID-19 and help tackle waiting lists. This includes £1.5 billion to manage the elective surgery backlog (including £500 million capital funding), with delays to cataract surgery identified by government as a particular concern. Delays to cataract surgery can have a significant impact on a patient’s ability to retain their lifestyle, independence, and caring responsibilities and could lead to falls and other preventable accidents.

Backlog has worsened during the pandemic

The funding should help to address some of the severe backlogs in eye care services that have worsened during the pandemic. As a consequence, high risk patients are at significant risk of avoidable sight loss. In 2017, the RCOphth and British Ophthalmological Surveillance Unit found that patients were suffering permanent and severe visual loss due to health service-initiated delays, with up to 22 patients per month losing vision because of such delays.

Long term investment needed

While welcoming the announcement, Professor Bernie Chang, President of The Royal College of Ophthalmologists, warned that long-term investment in the ophthalmology workforce is also needed to ensure that the rapidly growing patient demand is met in the coming years.

Speaking today, Bernie Chang explained:

‘The commitment to more funding to tackle backlogs will be a relief for ophthalmologists and other eye healthcare staff battling long waiting lists. Too many patients are waiting too long for ophthalmology services, with over half a million people now waiting for treatment (1).

Ophthalmology has been particularly badly affected by the pandemic. In 2020, as evidenced in the Atlas of variation in risk factors and healthcare for vision in England, there was a 38% fall in outpatient attendance during the pandemic and a 40% reduction in cataract surgery. This is despite the fact that patient need is growing all the time to treat glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. The backlog of these patients affected by Covid-19 restrictions shutting down services, has only added to the rapidly increasing demand as the UK population ages.

Investment is needed to improve access and capacity. We need to build community diagnostic hubs, recruit and upskill technicians and nurses as well as fund additional eye operations.”

Long-term fixes are needed to tackle the backlog

This new funding will only be a short-term fix though. An increase in the supply of ophthalmologists and other eye care professionals is needed given we know that patient demand will rise significantly. This huge challenge can only be addressed by effective long-term workforce planning in addition to infrastructure and IT investment.’

Highlighting the need for long-term workforce planning, the RCOphth has also responded this week to Health Education England’s workforce call for evidence (RCOphth call for action on workforce). This details how demand for ophthalmology services is set to significantly increase in the next 15 years and calls for urgent action to ensure workforce supply is there to meet patient need.

Read the full RCOphth submission to the HEE call for evidence on workforce planning

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