pair of spectales

Out of sight

By Abigail Rotheroe 8 November 2013

I now own a pair of glasses.

Thing is, I recently reached that point in my life when reading the London A-Z in a moving vehicle at dusk was beyond me, and for the sake of family harmony on car journeys, I knew I needed some specs. When I tripped into the smart local optician and wove my way through the designer frames, my main thoughts were: should I go for funky or intellectual frames? Should I get the family’s opinion first? I certainly thought the appointment would only test if I needed glasses, not that it would check my overall eye health—which it did (I am thankful to say). Easy, reassuring and car journeys are restored to their former state.

It’s only since working on our new report on visual impairment that I realised how sorely ignorant I was about eye health—along with most of the general population. We do not take eye health seriously and do not know enough about it, despite the fact that blindness is the disability we fear most: 76% of us would rather lose a limb than our eyesight.

Is it therefore surprising that 50% of sight loss is avoidable and could be remedied by wearing correctly prescribed glasses or accessing the right treatment at the right time? With the number affected by sight loss growing dramatically—as the population ages and underlying causes increase, including diabetes and obesity—why aren’t we hearing more about it?

In sight: a review of the visual impairment sector finds that charities could play a key part in raising awareness. Not only do we need to help people understand the importance of getting their eyes tested, we need to ensure that the most vulnerable groups, such as the older people, are able to easily access eye checks and don’t feel intimidated by the whole thing. This may mean more innovative delivery models which the sector is already working on.

In fact, now is a really exciting time for the eye sector; collaboration between charities is increasing all the time and has resulted in some good policy wins. But the deterioration in health and social care is affecting the visually impaired disproportionately. So, sadly, it’s ironic that the sense we fear losing most is being taking for granted too often and the urgency to find causes and cures is lacking. Timely treatment of conditions such as glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and some related to macular degeneration could prevent sight loss—bearing in mind that sight once lost to these diseases often cannot be re-gained.

The report finds that eye research is not well funded, despite an internationally renowned research community. Here again, collaboration is pushing the sector  forward in new ways, with a recent initiative, the Sight Loss and Vision Priority Setting Partnership, identifying what patients and professionals see as priorities for research. But there is still a long way to go.

The report concludes by providing interested funders with some specific areas to target, which address the identified gaps in services and research opportunities. There’s a lot which can be done. And on a basic level, everyone can play their part by having their eyes tested; even if you don’t think you need glasses, the optician can often spot any eye health problems before you develop any symptoms, by which time it could be too late for treatment.