The Cost Society Pays for Underfunding Sight-Saving Research

22 September 23

written by:

Josie Robson

(more articles)

Maintaining and safeguarding eye health is something we should all do, but we’re also calling for more funding for sight-saving research. We explore five key statistics that reveal the scale of the underfunding and the economic impacts.

At Fight for Sight / Vision Foundation, our mission is to save sight and change lives. National Eye Health Week takes place this month (18th-24th Sept 2023), the focus of which is the need to prioritise good eye health.

Maintaining and safeguarding eye health is something we should all do, but we’re also calling for more funding for sight-saving research. People are at the heart of what we do, but that must be on a societal and individual level.

Our ‘Time to Focus’ report, published in 2020, clearly highlighted the impact and cost of sight loss on a growing number of individuals and broader society. It asserts that the cost of sight impairment and blindness to the UK economy is estimated at £25 billion annually.

The report also explored the personal impact on people affected by sight loss.

As we look to the future and re-hone our focus on changing the world for visually impaired people, funding is necessarily at the heart of the problem, and the same issues persist as they did three years ago.

So, what is the actual economic cost of underfunding in our sector?

We explore five key statistics that reveal the scale of the economic problem.

1. How many people live with sight loss in the UK?

Over 2 million people live with sight loss in the UK, and 250,000 children in the UK have conditions that cause sight loss or blindness.  

2. How much does sight loss cost the UK economy?

The cost to the UK economy is a staggering £25.2 billion a year. That’s more than the combined annual expenditure of both the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, according to our Time to Focus report.

Using our costing tool, we estimated this will rise to £29.9 billion a year by 2030 and £33.5 billion a year by 2050. Below we explore the impact we can have on this figure by reducing the prevalence of eye conditions by just one per cent.

3. What are the costs associated with specific eye conditions?

Age-related macular degeneration: The lifetime cost of a new case of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in an adult aged 50 or over, causing at least moderate visual impairment, is £73,350.

At Fight for Sight / Vision Foundation, our goal is for a new treatment for macular degeneration in the next decade.

That’s why we are currently investing in
22 projects researching macular degeneration to help find new and more effective treatments for this condition. 

We have also partnered with the Macular Society, Blind Veterans and Scottish War Blinded to form Action Against Age-Related Macular Degeneration, and together we are funding further research in this area.

Glaucoma: Glaucoma is the world’s second leading cause of blindness. It affects 60 million people worldwide – nearly half a million in the UK alone.

The lifetime cost of glaucoma is £49,800 per person.

We are currently funding 15 projects across numerous strands of glaucoma research. Thanks to our kind supporters, research teams across the country stand on the brink of breakthroughs that could transform people’s lives and help them keep their sight.

Reducing the prevalence of both conditions by just 14 or 20 cases, respectively, could save the UK economy £1 million in lifetime costs.

4. Can sight loss be avoided?

More than a million people in the UK are living with avoidable sight loss.

A huge proportion of sight loss conditions are preventable but not necessarily treatable yet. Check our tips for looking after your eyes.

The backdrop to these huge numbers is a report released earlier this year, which revealed an NHS backlog and a shortage of ophthalmologists. 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. 

Find out more about ophthalmology workforce shortages here >

That’s why we’re funding groundbreaking research into eye research and sight loss prevention and supporting calls for a National Eye Care plan in England.

5. How much money is spent on eye health research in the UK

Within the context of the £2.56 billion that is currently targeted to health research, only 1.3% of that figure was specifically invested in eye research. That’s equivalent to just 0.8% of the annual NHS cost and just 0.1% of the total UK economic cost of vision problems. 

Fight for Sight is a member of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), whereby we share funding data annually, allowing us as a sector to see how we contribute to the health and care research funding of the UK.

Its latest sector report revealed that, as a group of 151 charities, we fund almost £2 billion in medical research, which is more than the Medical Research Council (MRC) and National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), which are both government funded. For extra economic context, every £1m spent by charities on medical research in the UK contributes to £1.83m to the economy.

6. What are the benefits of investing in eye health research

Reducing the prevalence of eye conditions by just one per cent per year could avoid costs to the UK economy of up to £3.1 billion by the end of the decade. And that same one per cent reduction in prevalence each year until 2050 would result in a societal saving of £9.5 billion

A recent example of a relatively small but impact-focussed grant funded by Fight for Sight was for research conducted by Dr Siegfried Wagner and Professor Pearse Keane of Moorfield’s Eye Hospital and University College London (UCL) Institute of Ophthalmology. Their groundbreaking findings showed that eye scans can detect Parkinson’s disease up to seven years before diagnosis.

Dr Madina Kara, Director of Research and Innovation at Fight for Sight, said, “The latest findings […] show what an impact that initial investment in research can result in. We look forward to working with the INSIGHT team and the wider research community to build on this important field of oculomics to support prevention, detection and enhance treatments of disease in the future”. 

As Professor Keane has told us, “Fight for Sight was the crucial seed for all this work (and the best is yet to come!)”.