By Daniel Boal, ITV News Multimedia Producer
Hundreds of people have lost their sight or had it irreparably damaged due to treatment delays caused by NHS backlogs, research suggests.
NHS England figures, released following a Freedom of Information request from the Association of Optometrists (AOP), showed 551 patients have reported a loss in sight due to delayed appointments since 2019.
The loss in sight for over 200 of those patients resulted in 'moderate to serious harm', with the AOP suggesting hundreds of cases have gone unreported.
One reported incident included a patient with a wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) who lost vision in their left eye after injection treatments were delayed.
The patient was meant to have monthly injections but presented at clinic after three months had passed without an appointment.
Another patient reported 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.
The findings have led nearly half of UK optometrists to raise serious concerns over the number of patients they are seeing who could lose sight unnecessarily as a result of long NHS waiting lists and cancelled appointments.
Latest figures reveal 628,502 people are waiting for ophthalmology appointments – the second largest NHS backlog, equating to one in every 11 patients on an NHS waiting list.
A survey of UK optometrists showed that 72% had seen a patient in the last six months who had experienced a delay to treatment of 12 months or more.
The AOP has calling on the government to stop this 'health emergency' and commit to a national eye health strategy to provide care to more patients in the community.
Chief Executive of the AOP, Adam Sampson said: “We are facing a health emergency. Hospitals are overrun, and the NHS is collapsing under patient need.
"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, so patients can be treated closer to home.
“It’s incomprehensible and absolutely tragic that patients are waiting, losing their vision, in many parts of the country because of the way eye healthcare is commissioned. With a national strategy for eye care we can take a critical stride towards improving care and outcomes for patients.”
The AOP has argued that waiting times could be reduced if care was provided by community optometrists.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson 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.
"We are also investing in the ophthalmology workforce with more training places provided in 2022 – and even more planned for 2023 – alongside improved training for existing staff.
“We have made strong progress in tackling the Covid backlogs – including those waiting for eye care – with a record 2.1 million diagnostic tests carried out in January. Thousands more patients are now being seen more quickly and the number of 18-month waits have decreased by almost two thirds since September 2021.”
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