Harmful delays to the screening, monitoring and treatment of eye health conditions were well recognised before the pandemic, as demand for NHS eye care services had already exceeded capacity. Together with the backlog resulting from the pandemic, and an ageing population, a significant anticipated future burden on eye health services is expected.
Our recommendations to Health Education England (HEE)
To ensure that eye care services are fit for the future, and that the optometry workforce is fully supported to deliver these services, the College has made the following recommendations to HEE:
- Provide support for the development of, and access to, discrete packages of learning to enable optometrists to upskill in target areas and incremental routes to full higher qualifications.
- Support (and commission) providers in the development of new and revised qualifications to increase capacity to meet existing and developing workforce needs.
- Support optometrists to access shortage qualifications – including not just fees, but also backfill to reduce employer costs, and incentivise smaller and independent practices.
- Support the College’s workforce data modelling work.
Future workforce requirements
There is a lack of up-to-date data on both current population need and granular workforce capacity across all professions of the eye health sector. The College of Optometrists is developing a vision for the optometry workforce, and would like to work with partners, such as HEE, to commission an analysis of current and future population need, and the development of a workforce data model, to achieve a full understanding of the eye care workforce requirements.
Developing new models of care is critical to addressing the backlog
As the UK emerges from the pandemic, it is more important than ever to develop more integrated eye care between all organisations across the hospital eye service, the independent sector, community settings and primary eye care. Eye care services need to incorporate innovative, sustainable, multi-disciplinary models to improve patient care and outcomes. Optometrists have a key role in delivering enhanced and advanced care in these new models.
The College and our partners in the optical sector would like to see an ‘Optometry First’ scheme established; enabling many patients with eye conditions to be appropriately managed within primary care optometry and only referred to the hospital eye service if clinically necessary. If rolled out nationally, Optometry First would help achieve transformation through care closer to home, and the best use of the existing workforce in primary care.
We need to learn from services developed rapidly during the pandemic
Optometrists have already played a key role in supporting hospital ophthalmology and GP primary care teams in reducing existing burden and dealing with the backlog of patients. In response to the pandemic, commissioners, Trusts and primary eye care have worked together to ensure the availability of appropriate and adequate levels of urgent eye care has been commissioned and delivered. We must use learning from what has worked to support further transformation.
Utilizing the full skills and competences of optometrists
The NHS must utilise the full core skills and competences of optometrists, both in primary and secondary care. Services must also be commissioned and funded which make full use of the higher and independent prescribing qualifications that many optometrists hold, which in many cases are not being deployed to their full potential. HEE has a role to play in ensuring that optometrists are supported to deliver eye care services in the future.
Read our full response.