Over 52,000 people are waiting for eye care appointments or procedures, the latest figures have shown.
According to figures from the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF), at the end of July, 43,000 people were waiting for outpatient appointments, with almost 14,000 of these already waiting more than 18 months.
A further 9,100 people were on waiting lists for inpatient eye procedures compared to 7,700 at the end of 2019.
Commenting on the figures, the Association of Optometrists Ireland (AOI) said that eye care waiting lists are "out of control" and urgent reform of services is needed.
"In the south west, people can be waiting up to five years for cataract surgery. However, waiting times are shortest, at approximately one year, in the north west. This is because of the proven Sligo Post-Cataract Scheme.
"AOI is calling for the protocol to be sanctioned as policy nationwide by the Minister for Health and his department. This is the most immediate and readily deliverable action which can be taken to address waiting lists," commented AOI president, Patricia Dunphy.
The Sligo scheme involves the hospital ophthalmology department and optometrists in the region working more closely together to reduce hospital appointments for cataract care.
Cataract surgery accounts for a significant number of waiting list cases, which is why reducing hospital attendances for cataracts has such a big impact.
"There is no reason or logic not to expand the scheme. In terms of cost, it is 50% less expensive to provide appointments in the local community at an optometrist than in hospitals. In the context of COVID-19, managing patients at their local optometrist reduces travel and public contact," Ms Dunphy noted.
AOI has also called on the Government to work towards a new community-based National Children's Eye Care Programme, which would be led by optometrists.
The HSE recently decided to run a pilot scheme for eye examinations and glasses prescriptions for 8-12 year-old children in Westmeath and Offaly. This move was welcomed by AOI, but it is concerned that this may lead to a ‘postal lottery' for children's eyecare.
"Local optometrists are engaging with the scheme and would support it being broadened and expanded, with the target of it developing into a national programme with protocols.
"Optometrists can meet many of children's public eye care needs much more quickly than hospital eye departments. Directing appropriate children towards a community care pathway will help them to be seen quicker, and reduce hospital waiting lists and capacity problems," Ms Dunphy said.
She added that treatment delays not only lead to poorer eye health outcomes, they "also impact on independent living and can lead to the need for carers, care homes, mental health services and unemployment benefits".
Discussions on this topic are now closed.