Thousands of people will be at much greater risk of losing their sight if free eye-tests, introduced in Scotland four years ago, are axed in public spending cutbacks. Speculation is mounting that they might be among early targets for savings.
RNIB Scotland, the country's leading sight loss charity, and Optometry Scotland, the professional body representing optometrists, say free eye tests have meant that potentially serious sight-threatening conditions such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy have now been identified in thousands more people much earlier, when treatment can still arrest or even reverse the symptoms.
Heralded as a major step forward in public healthcare, last year alone there was a six per cent increase in the uptake of the free examinations, rising from 1.63m people in March 2008 to 1.73m by March 2009.
Crucially, this has also led to more accurate – and cost-effective – referrals for follow-up care at a GP or eye clinic. Over 70,000 people in Scotland were referred on for potentially sight-saving treatment last year.
John Legg, director RNIB Scotland, said: “Free eye tests are not a luxury but an integral part of the work to prevent avoidable blindness and visual impairment.
“Sight loss in Scotland is set to double over the next two decades. Without intervention, this will mean an estimated 400,000 people with significant sight loss, placing enormous strain on public service budgets.
“As recently as April this year international research highlighted in the British Medical Journal demonstrated the crucial importance of eye examinations in reducing the risk of serious sight loss, which increases costs to health and social care, and effects people from marginalised groups such as the isolated and the elderly the most.
“Scrapping free eye tests will reduce the accuracy of referrals to eye clinics, reduce the detection of sight-threatening eye disease, and in the long-term rack up huge extra costs for the NHS, social services and ultimately the taxpayer. With a general medical admission costing £1,790 in Scotland, our research has estimated the cost of sight loss for one person to be equal to ten hospital admissions.”
By investing in new hi-tech eye scanners, as well as introducing free eye tests, the accuracy of referrals to eye clinics is now much higher, insists the charity. In 2008, there was a two per cent overall drop in referrals from optometrists to eye clinics. But this was coupled with a large increase of referrals of people with suspected serious eye disease, up from 3.6 per cent of all patients given eye tests by 2007 to 4.2 per cent of all patients by 2009.
“Free eye tests save sight and save money,” emphasises Legg. “Scrapping them will condemn thousands of people to avoidable sight loss at colossal extra cost to the state.”
Optometry Scotland’s newly elected chairman Peter Carson said the removal of funding for free eye examinations would be a “disaster” for the Scottish Government and the wider population.
He added: “Since free tests were reintroduced the number of people requesting examinations has risen and blindness has reduced. If funding is withdrawn, those who cannot afford to pay would suffer and we would likely witness an increase in blindness, which impacts financially on the secondary healthcare sector.
“The re-introduction of Government funded eye examinations in Scotland in 2006 was one of the best things to come from devolution of healthcare to the Scottish Parliament. It is also widely viewed as a model of excellence.
“Everyone is now entitled to access free eyecare in their local communities and regular eye examinations have a major role to play in eliminating preventable blindness and detection of certain medical conditions. Eye examinations and sight correction ensure Scots have the best vision possible to help them function effectively in an increasing visually demanding world.”