Up to four NHS patients a week are losing their sight because hospitals cannot keep up with demand for appointments, a leading expert has warned.
Prof Carrie MacEwen, president of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, said follow-up appointments were being delayed for months or even years, partly because NHS targets only relate to the initial consultation.
She said action urgently needed to tackle the “perfect storm” of rising demand caused by an ageing population requiring more long term care.
“We can no longer ignore the pressure mounting in hospital eye services,” she wrote in an article for the BBC.
“In reality, the increasing demand for eye clinic appointments comes from existing patients which chronic eye diseases, such as macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic eye disease.
“These ‘follow-up’ patients are the most vulnerable and at the greatest risk of irreversible sight loss. These conditions require long-term repeat appointments for close monitoring and care.”
Hospitals are fined if patients wait more than 18 weeks for a consultation or treatment after a GP referral.
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But Prof MacEwen said there were no targets for follow-ups, meaning a lack of data made it difficult to determine the magnitude of the problem.
She highlighted a study that identified nearly 500 incidents describing loss or deterioration of vision from such delays between 2011 and 2013 in England and Wales.
And preliminary results from a national study being carried out by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists suggest that at least 20 patients a month suffer severe visual sight loss from such delays.
Improvements in understanding such conditions and the importance of follow-up appointments being kept within a recommended time were deemed the most important solutions to the problem.
Such problems include age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of sight loss affecting 600,000 Britons, and glaucoma.
There are now nearly ten million hospital outpatient appointments a year, a rise of 30 per cent in the last five years.