Over 41,000 people were waiting for eye care outpatient appointments at the end of December 2018, with almost 40% of these having already been waiting for at least one year.
According to the figures released by the Association of Optometrists (AOI), 41,600 people were waiting for outpatient appointments at the end of last year, up from 39,900 in December 2017.
Some 16,200 of these had already been waiting for more than a year for their appointment, while 10,500 had been waiting for at least 18 months.
Furthermore, 9,300 people were waiting for inpatient eye procedures at the end of December 2018, making it the third largest inpatient list of any medical specialty.
According to AOI chief executive, Sean McCrave, Ireland's eye care services need to be reformed to cope with increasing demand.
"While there was a welcome reduction in the inpatients list, and the rate of increase in the outpatient list is slowing, the mismatch between demand and availability remains enormous.
"AOI welcomes the additional theatre space at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear and Nenagh Hospitals during 2018, but these will not address this scale of demand and delays. We have a growing aged population year on year," Mr McCrave commented.
He said that optometrists are calling for ‘radical reform' of eye care services, which would include ‘a move towards a triaged approach of routine public care provided by optometrists in the community and specialised care by ophthalmologists in hospitals'.
"In Ireland, we have an unusual overreliance on hospital ophthalmology departments. This is a flawed approach that cannot and will not meet patient demand," Mr McCrave insisted.
Meanwhile, AOI president, Patricia Dunphy, also highlighted the need for cataracts surgeries to be better organised, as these account for a big portion of the waiting list backlog.
"A survey carried out by AOI in 2018 found that there are waiting times of up to five years in some parts of the country for cataract surgery. AOI is calling for the national roll-out of the Sligo Post-Cataract Scheme, which has reduced waiting times and costs in the region where it is available.
"Rolling out this protocol nationally would reduce outpatient cataract appointments by up to 20,000. This alone would make a significant impact," she noted.
Under the Sligo scheme, each cataract patient's follow-up appointment is co-managed by optometrists in the community and ophthalmologists in hospital, reducing the patient pathway by one appointment.
The AOI is also calling for the development of an optometrist-led national eye care programme for children up to the age of 16.The aim of this would be to address waiting times, as well as gaps and inconsistencies in children's services nationwide.
It has also called for optometrists to be granted prescribing rights for antibiotic and steroid drops, which its members are already qualified to do.
Ms Dunphy pointed out that this would not require any additional training, just an amendment to the Medicines Act.
"Appropriate prescribing by optometrists would relieve some pressure on GPs and also simplify care for the patient, who could be managed more comprehensively by their optometrist," she said.
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