1.8 million people in the UK are blind or partially sighted, yet over 50% of sight loss can be avoided. And the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) project the number of people with sight loss will increase dramatically to 2.25million people by 2020 and nearly 4 million by 2050 due to the ageing population in the UK today.
This week is National Eye Health Week - a campaign aiming to raise awareness about maintaining good eye health and highlighting the widespread need for regular sight tests. Comprehensive eye exams don’t only tell us if we need glasses or new lenses but can also diagnose and treat common eye diseases which can in turn prevent many cases of sight loss.
This is a fantastic cause and raising this awareness is important in improving eye health across the UK. However, during this week we should also think about the people who are living with unavoidable sight loss, the impact that this can have on their lives and the need for easy access to support services.
What about support for people living with sight loss?
Though maintaining regular check-ups and focusing on good eye health is important, there are still a significant proportion of people who are unable to prevent their vision impairment. Statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre showed that the number of people receiving services such as residential care, community based services and nursing care has decreased dramatically in recent years and our analysis of adult social care data found that the number of blind and partially sighted people receiving any kind of services had declined by 35% in 6 years. This is a large percentage compared to the 22% decline for users with physical disability and 16% decrease amongst all service users.
There could be many reasons for the lessened usage of services amongst blind and partially sighted people such as raised eligibility, reduced funding or lack of awareness and it is likely to be a combination of many factors. After controlling for age and sex, data from the Life and Opportunities Survey (LOS) showed that people with sight loss were twice as likely as those with no impairment to have experienced difficulty accessing health services and were more than twice as likely to have experienced a lot of difficulty accessing benefit services. If accessing health services has become more difficult in recent years then it’s no wonder that the number of users are swiftly decreasing. This must be addressed as these people need support and if there is some out there for them they must be able to use it with ease.
What is being done to make access to support easier?
Many campaigns are on-going to help make support and information easier for the blind and partially sighted to access. Due to years of campaigning, a change is being implemented where healthcare providers must supply routine and confidential information to those in need in a format they can read. This is a step in the right direction as it highlights the fact that things need to change and there must be a greater focus on making life easier for those living with sight loss. Having support immediately after the news of visual impairments is a key part of making access easier. Eye Clinic Liaison Officers (ECLOs) will hopefully soon be spread across all hospital eye clinics and after an eight-year battle, Phil Smith, an ECLO, has just been funded to be placed at Torbay Hospital in Devon. This is a great achievement for this initiative.
Unfortunately, this is just a drop in the ocean. There is still a long way to go in improving the care and access to support for blind and partially sighted people. An increase in funding and raised awareness would help the situation and hopefully the on-going campaigning will continue to make positive changes to the support that people get.
So as well as taking notice of ways to prevent sight loss, let's also remember that there is a lot more work to be done in improving support for those with unpreventable sight loss.