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Eye patients going blind because of NHS backlog delays

Currently, 628,502 people are awaiting ophthalmology appointments in England – the second largest NHS backlog - Makiko Tanigawa/Digital Vision
Currently, 628,502 people are awaiting ophthalmology appointments in England – the second largest NHS backlog - Makiko Tanigawa/Digital Vision

NHS patients are going blind because of treatment delays caused by the treatment backlog, official data suggest.

There have been 551 reports related to sight loss to the national reporting and incident system because of delayed appointments since 2019, with hundreds more unreported cases suspected.

Of the reported cases, 364 suffered some degree of harm, 99 involved “severe harm” and 120 caused “moderate harm” that was deemed irreversible.

In one case, a patient with wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) lost vision in their left eye after injection treatment was delayed. The patient was meant to have monthly injections but presented at the clinic after three months had passed without an appointment.

The figures, revealed through a Freedom of Information request and first reported by Optometry Today, show that in all three years post-pandemic there were more cases of severe harm than in pre-pandemic 2019. In 2021, there was a 70 per cent increase in cases of severe harm compared to 2019, rising from 20 to 34.

Around 300 people a day are diagnosed with macular disease – the biggest cause of sight loss in the UK – but timely treatment can slow it and prevent serious loss of vision.

Currently, 628,502 people are awaiting ophthalmology appointments in England – the second largest NHS backlog, equating to one in every 11 patients on an NHS waiting list. Of those, 27,260 have been waiting a year or more.

The FOI revealed details of another patient who said their four-month follow-up appointment had been cancelled several times. When they presented one year and four months later, a total retinal detachment was diagnosed.

Optometrists have serious concerns

A separate survey by the Macular Society found that nearly six in 10 patients with macular eye conditions have experienced a delay while waiting for an NHS appointment in the past two years. Forty-seven per cent experienced a loss or decline in vision during this time.

Three in 10 felt abandoned by the NHS, 21 per cent now struggle with day-to-day tasks and 41 per cent said they were frightened of losing their vision entirely.

More than four out of 10 optometrists said they had serious concerns over the number of patients who could lose sight unnecessarily as a result of long NHS waiting lists and cancelled appointments, according to a poll by the Association of Optometrists (AOP).

The AOP is calling on the Government to commit to a national eye health strategy that enables more patients to access the care they need quickly and locally.

Cathy Yelf, the chief executive of the Macular Society, said: “People are terrified at the prospect of losing vision. The ones who contact us are the ones who are actively trying to solve the problem. We have no idea how many people sit at home, quietly losing their vision and not making a fuss about it.

“It is a tragedy that people lose sight when there is a treatment that will help keep their vision for longer but it is not given in time.

“If the NHS can’t cope with the number of patients, then they should be assessing the risk of each patient and finding an alternative place for their treatment. This can’t wait – this is an urgent situation, and people will lose their vision if they are not treated properly.”

‘It’s such a worry’

Pam Perceval-Maxwell, 75, from Wales, who developed wet AMD in 2021 in her only good eye and requires regular injections but has suffered delays of 12 weeks, said: “I’m terrified I will lose my sight entirely. When your consultant stresses how important it is to have the injections on time but you can’t get an appointment it’s such a worry.”

Another survey respondent said they were considering going into debt to fund private treatment, adding: “I’ve had no communication from the NHS since my optician found the hole and referred me four months ago. The success window is six months.”

Adam Sampson, the chief executive of the AOP, said: “There are good treatments available for common age-related eye conditions like macular degeneration, but many Hospital trusts simply do not have the capacity to deliver services.

“Optometry is ideally placed to take away some of that burden – optometrists are already qualified to provide many of the extended services needed and are available on every high street.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “No one should have to suffer avoidable sight loss, and we are taking action to improve access to services, including appointing a national clinical director for eye care to oversee the recovery and transformation of services so patients receive the care they need.”