Happy 75th Birthday to the NHS, and thank you, researchers

05 July 23

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Press Office

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Today (July 5, 2023) is a genuine day of celebration. It marks two important days for our community 75 years of the National Health Service (NHS) and Research Appreciation Day. Research Officer, Rosie Sturt, takes time out to celebrate them both.

By Rosie Sturt, Research Officer, Fight for Sight

Today (July 5, 2023) is a genuine day of celebration. It marks two important days for our community 75 years of the National Health Service (NHS) and Research Appreciation Day – the first of the annual event established by MQ Mental Health.

The NHS Act brought before parliament in 1946, was created as part of a social welfare policy under Clement Atlee's Labour government which aimed to provide universal and free benefits to all those in need. It is rightly celebrated as a jewel within our society.

Yet, it faces well-documented challenges today, and some of those pressures come from caring for people with eye diseases. One in 10 of all hospital appointments is for eye services, according to our Time to Focus report, greater than any other department of specialism.

  • Read more about eye diseases in our A to Z

A shortage of eye health specialists

Recently, the UK government released its long-term workforce plan, which it claims will boost retention and encourage more people to work within the NHS. Yet, there is a workforce shortage within eye health, as documented by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists and the AOP.

According to the AOP, NHS England clinicians filed 551 reports of patients who lost their sight in 2019 because of a backlog. Of the 551, 219 resulted in “moderate or severe harm”, according to a Freedom of Information Access request by the Association of Optometrists. 

“NHS England clinicians filed 551 reports of patients who lost their sight in 2019 because of a backlog”

The RCOphth 2022 workforce census report reveals that most NHS ophthalmology services need more capacity to meet current patient demand, and over half (52%) have found it more challenging to recruit consultants in the last 12 months.

Marsha de Cordova, MP, opened a Westminster debate about the national eye health strategy, which recognised that 76% of NHS eye units in the UK do not have enough consultants to meet demand.

Research and healthcare: a symbiotic relationship

There is a long-established relationship between research and the NHS.

For example, the NHS Long Term Plan, launched as the NHS turned 70, outlines the changes needed for health as medicine progresses. Part of the plan speaks of using research and innovation to drive improvement in future outcomes, so best practice will be driven by data gathered by researchers working across all health and care research sectors.

Recently, I attended a conference, Drugs, Devices and Data – the Future Delivery of Eye Health Care, where numerous researchers showcased innovations that could save sight and deliver better treatments and therapies for eye disease.

Likewise, the advent of AI holds promise for the future of eye health.

The role of data in driving eye healthcare innovations

Data is fundamental to better healthcare, and harnessing its power will be critical for the future of the NHS. The NHS Data Strategy from the Department of Health & Social Care, released in June 2022, explores the need and benefits of data use within the NHS.

We know that research produces data – positive or ‘negative’ – which can inform a wide range of stakeholders, including the NHS. A national eye health care plan will be key to resource planning.

When researchers are working across the UK, it is vital that every member of the public has the chance to participate in helping avoid bias in health datasets, for example, or that researchers have a dataset full of information to explore hypotheses that protect the privacy of the individual.

An example of these datasets is UK Biobank, utilised by many of our researchers, which contains in-depth genetic and health information from half a million participants across the UK.

By improving this access to datasets for researchers, including linking existing datasets but maintaining safeguarding policies, we can draw better, ‘richer’ insights, including improving personalised treatment for clinical staff working with patients. For example, informed by models developed by researchers and updated with clinical experience.

Showing appreciation for our funded researchers and beyond

Yet, to perform good science, you need good scientists. As a grant-making organisation, Fight for Sight / Vision Foundation is proud to invest in research to save sight and change lives.

We fund early career researchers, and our Zakarian Awards (jointly awarded with RCOphth) specifically offer awards to ophthalmologists who are members of The Royal College of Ophthalmologists to encourage research. Separately, the RCOphth found that engaging in research could boost retention. Most (54%) of trainees want to be more involved in research, 44% of Specialty and specialist (SAS) doctors also want to be more research active, and 39% of consultants.

Recently, we awarded £1.2 million worth of funding to accelerate innovative sight loss. The five studies will accelerate breakthroughs in multiple sight loss conditions, including Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA)Stargardt’s disease and uveitis.

For over three decades, we’ve funded research to save sight, and many projects are already paying dividends.

Research is hard work, painstaking and can take years, and we’re so grateful for the inspiring researchers who work within the sphere of eye healthcare. With their hard work and our investment, we can find cures to ease the burden on the NHS. For those who receive a life-changing eye disease diagnosis, research can answer the urgent question, “How do I stop this?”

People ask with the same urgency, where there is no cure, “How do I live with this?”

Funding programmes that benefit individuals and drive change

As the NHS turns 75, a gulf still exists between National Healthcare and social care, and many people fall through the cracks. For example, only 17% of people experiencing sight loss are offered emotional support concerning their deteriorating vision.

We know that only 27% of working-age blind or partially sighted people are in work, compared to 51% of disabled people and 75% of the general population. Only 40% of employers are confident their recruitment processes are accessible to blind or partially sighted people, and 90% state that it would be “difficult” or “impossible” to employ a visually impaired person.

At Fight for Sight / Vision Foundation, we invest in programmes that benefit individuals and gather evidence to drive social change. We’ve just hired a Director of Social Impact, Ellie Southwood MBE, as part of our ongoing commitment to driving social change.

Her appointment is a watershed moment for our organisation, whereby 50% of our executive team has lived experience of sight loss and visual impairment. Today we celebrate the NHS and our dedicated researchers and partners.

We are optimistic about a future where we can and will save sight and change lives.