Delays in the treatment of eye disease and missed appointments because of the Covid-19 pandemic could have serious repercussions for people with sight-threatening conditions.
A new report paints a stark picture of the impact coronavirus has had on Ireland’s eye health due to reduced testing and delays in the identification and treatment of eye disease.
There was a 19% decline in eye tests last year, while waiting lists for screenings and appointments have increased.
The State of Ireland’s Eye Health 2021 report, commissioned by Specsavers Ireland in collaboration with charity partner Fighting Blindness, expects the delays in the treatment of eye disease and missed appointments to have a considerable financial impact on the economy but, more worryingly, the real cost to people’s sight.
Before the pandemic, the annual economic cost of sight loss and blindness in Ireland by 2020 was estimated at €2.67 billion. The additional backlog of eye care services caused by the pandemic is likely to impose significant additional costs for people with sight threatening conditions as they live with a greater risk of falls, fear of (further) vision loss, productivity losses and reduced quality of life while waiting.
With more than 123,700 fewer eye examinations provided (a 19% drop) and more than 49,000 people on a waiting list for an eye hospital appointment or procedure, eye health experts are predicting a surge of referrals to ophthalmology services.
The report also highlights that as of May 2021, there are 8,735 children on ophthalmology waiting lists.
Children suffering with poor eye health can have difficulties in classrooms which can have an impact on their learning and development. Early intervention is key to vastly reducing the negative impact of certain conditions on children’s eye health and vision.
To support the commissioned eye health report, Specsavers Ireland also carried out consumer research with Empathy Research.
The report and the consumer research reveals:
A 19% decline in eye tests administered resulting in 123,741 fewer eye tests throughout Ireland in March to December 2020
47,000 people missed out on diabetic retinopathy screening in 2020, compared to 2019
49,000 people currently on the waiting list for ophthalmology outpatient and inpatient appointments as of August 2021
There are 8,735 children on ophthalmology waiting lists as of May 2021
36% of adults who have had an eye test before, claim to have delayed an eye test during the pandemic knowing that they were due to have one or feeling like they should have one
24% of adults delayed their eye test because the pandemic made them reluctant to be in busy social situations post-lockdown
Just over 6 in 10 (62%) adults have experienced red, itchy, sore or uncomfortable eyes and claim these symptoms have impacted their vision in the last 18 months
Almost half (45%) of those experiencing eye fatigue claim they first began to experience it during the pandemic.
Almost 1 in 10 (9%) of adults feel that they might have a serious underlying sight issue that they have not had looked at because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This incidence is highest amongst those aged 18-34.
Kerril Hickey, Specsavers Ireland Chairman, says: "As comprehensive as this report is, we, along with our colleagues and partners throughout the eye health sector, suspect that these early findings are just the tip of the iceberg.
"The pandemic meant that eye care services in the Ireland were withdrawn, reduced or restricted, and despite Specsavers being open for care throughout the pandemic, our stores, alongside other community optometrists, saw a significant drop of almost 19% in eye tests across the sector.
"This has led to a reduction in referrals and the treatment of serious, and sometimes symptomless, eye conditions that can lead to irreversible and permanent sight loss if not detected and managed in time," he said.
During the pandemic, 47,000 people missed out on diabetic retinopathy screening in 2020, compared to 2019. A vital programme that screens people with diabetes who are at risk of developing sight loss due to diabetic retinopathy. The RetinaScreen team has since worked incredibly hard to clear the backlog by September 2021.
As ophthalmologists deal with the COVID-19 backlog, with reduced clinic capacity, they are particularly concerned about injections for patients with wet AMD, glaucoma diagnosis and treatment, diabetic retinopathy treatment and paediatric ophthalmology.
Kevin Whelan, CEO of Fighting Blindness, says: "Throughout the pandemic, so many of us concerned with eye health have worked hard to provide urgent care and support to those who have needed it. However, due to restricted services, there is now a significant backlog of people who did not attend eye appointments and while many will not have been disadvantaged by this delay, some may now need urgent sight saving treatment and sadly some will have experienced permanent vision loss.
"This report highlights the scale of the challenge we now face as restrictions are eased. Everyone at Fighting Blindness is ready to play our part in preventing avoidable sight loss," he said.
Kerril Hickey is looking to promote a more joined-up approach throughout the eye health sector to help tackle the problem of clearing the backlog of patients and reducing the burden on the HSE.
"Now is the time to implement change, such as fast-tracking technology, that will help to secure long-term sustainability of patient-centred care," Mr Hickey said.
For more information about the State of the ROI Eye Health Report visit www.specsavers.ie/eye-health/ state-of-irelands-eye-health- 2021 or to book an appointment visit www.specsavers.ie.
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