Westminster Eye Health Day – An Urgent Call for Change
Today is Westminster Eye Health Day (December 11, 2023), and, as a partner in The Eyes Have It, we are joining a rallying cry to improve eye health care in England and the UK.
By Keith Valentine, CEO of Fight for Sight / Vision Foundation
I am connected with what The Eyes Have It stands for, which means I’m passionate about this cause today and every day. When someone tells you that you or your child, will never see again, it is devastating, and it also raises two deeply profound questions:
- Can you stop this from happening?
- How will I live my life?
These two questions encapsulate the daily challenges we face as an organisation dedicated to both saving sight and changing lives.
The Scale of the Problem
This challenge drives me as the CEO of a new charity forged from Fight for Sight and Vision Foundation on behalf of the 2.2 million people in the UK living with conditions that cause sight loss. How we tackle these challenges is by funding both research and social change.
Historically, Fight for Sight has and will continue to fund cutting-edge science and scientists across the UK researching therapies that can prevent and stop sight loss and reverse the impact of eye diseases.
Meanwhile, Vision Foundation has a proud 100-year history of funding services and activities that enrich the lives of people living with sight loss, exploring how it impacts people's chances of getting a job and supporting impactful social change programmes.
We’ve also explored areas of intersectionality, including the shocking scale and prevalence of Domestic Violence among blind and partially sighted. Most recently, we launched a fund devoted to exploring loneliness and social isolation for the visually impaired community.
Our merger provides a platform to explore, trial, scale and drive systemic change.
Laying The Foundations: a manifesto for change
Tackling the challenges faced by people living with sight loss will require a coordinated approach as set out in ‘Laying the Foundations for the Future of Eye Health in England’, the report The Eyes Have It amassed for Westminster Eye Health Day.
I’m very proud our charity is a partner in “The Eyes Have It” alongside Roche, Macular Society, The Royal College of Ophthalmologists, Association of Optometrists and RNIB. With the launch of this report, the partnership continues to advocate for improvements to the experiences and outcomes of people living with eye health conditions.
So, what are we calling for today?
The report continues our advocacy for improving the experiences and outcomes of people with eye health conditions. We need a National Eye Care plan – something that the Labour MP Marsha de Cordova – continues to champion in Westminster.
Speaking at Vis-Ability recently, an event co-hosted by herself and Fight for Sight / Vision Foundation, De Cordova said: “My life and my lived experience has shaped and has really helped drive my career. My purpose has always been to make a difference and to be a voice to the voiceless. If we can’t fix the problems here, in what I believe is the heart of democracy, how can we expect society to willingly comply?”
The Eyes Have It continues to support that call for a National Eye Care Plan, and as a partner, so does Fight for Sight/Vision Foundation.
The Changes We Want to See
Specifically, the Laying the Foundations Report sets out fourteen core recommendations we believe will drive systemic change and improve standards of care for people impacted by sight loss.
Broadly, the fourteen recommendations address the need for better-integrated care, integrated systems, and a data-driven and patient-centric approach that addresses the need for psychological support when someone receives a life-changing diagnosis of sight loss. We’re calling for better community support, to grow the workforce and to ensure that the workforce has the right skills to support patients outside the hospital.
We need better data and digital systems (as outlined in recommendations one and two) to ensure information passes between primary and secondary care. It will streamline referral pathways, enable better workforce planning, and give patients access to services.
Points three and four continue the theme of integration and the need to ensure access to good optometry care is available in the community.
Specifically, the report calls for Integrated Care Partnerships to undertake an eye health needs assessment of the population, which can inform local commissioning and pathway development. We’re also calling for Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) to deliver high-quality, consistent pathways of care for optometry. These would embrace optometry practices as diagnostic hubs and treatment centres. They should be supported by ensuring patients can access Minor Eye Care Services and Community Urgent Care Services.
The need for psychological support
Putting patients first is vital, which we address in points five and six. There needs to be equity of access, support and empowerment for eye patients as they progress through the patient pathway. Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) must commission Eye Care Liaison Officers (ECLOs) and implement an eye care support pathway, providing consistent information, communications and support through the patient pathway.
They should raise public awareness and knowledge of self-care, new treatment options and wider non-clinical support services, including vision rehabilitation, the third sector – charities such as us - and emotional and wellbeing support beyond the initial post-diagnostic support period.
It is unacceptable that most people who are told they will lose their sight don’t receive emotional support.
Through the Laying the Foundations report, we’re calling on The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to update guidance to recognise the need for psychological care to be provided as part of wider eye care.
The Time to Focus Report we commissioned shows that being blind or partially sighted has a significant impact on mental health. Shockingly, Time to Focus found that the quality of life for people with severe sight loss is lower than that for people with a range of other severe physical and mental health conditions, including depression and advanced breast cancer.
Supporting the Eye Care Workforce
We need to invest in people to provide the best possible care. Building on commitments in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, DHSC and NHS England should increase the number of ophthalmology speciality training places in line with current and future patient needs and fully resource trainers to deliver this expanded programme.
Sadly, there are already workforce shortages, which are impacting eye care. As part of The Eyes Have It Westminster Eye Health Day, you can enter your postcode into the Polimapper tool and check waiting lists in your area.
Commissioners should also, where necessary, enable and upskill the wider eye care workforce to deliver more clinical care outside hospital, for example, through universally commissioned, optometry-led Minor Eye Care Services and Community Urgent Eye Care Services.
Improving technologies and treatments
Fight for Sight / Vision Foundation funds research that could improve sight-saving treatments and technologies. However, it is vital that NHS England has the right infrastructure to roll out new treatments and technologies – as the Laying the Foundations report highlights. This should include setting out clear commissioning requirements, with a minimum standard of evidence alongside analysis of clinical and cost-effectiveness, to support the correct implementation.
It is also critical that “NHS England, Integrated Care Boards and service providers ensure adequate staff training and resourcing to deliver new technologies and treatment models, and that evolving professional practice is reflected in workforce planning and training,” says the report.
Please download the press release for more information.