WAITING times for ophthalmology, or eye care appointments, in Cork and across Ireland deteriorated during the Covid-19 pandemic and HSE cyber hack but they were already shockingly long before that, according to the Association of Optometrists Ireland.
Figures from the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) show that just under 41,000 people were awaiting outpatient eye care appointments in January 2020, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
That figure had risen to more than 41,000 adults alone by the end of September this year while the number of adults waiting over 18 months increased from 11,840 to 14,467 in the same period. More than 6,000 children were also waiting for an appointment.
However, even going back to January 2019, the number of people awaiting outpatient ophthalmology appointments stood at over 40,000, and there were 11,000 people waiting over 18 months for services.
National inpatient figures, meanwhile, show that eye care waiting lists have actually decreased since January 2019 when there were over 9,300 people awaiting appointments.
At the end of September this year, around 8,000 adults and 600 children were on inpatient waiting lists for eye-care treatments.
While he admitted that the pandemic and HSE hacking debacle impacted waiting times for people, association president John Weldon pointed out that waiting times for ophthalmology services had been unacceptable for a long time before the pandemic.
“We understand and accept that Covid and the hack on the HSE wreaked havoc with the outpatient appointments,” he said.
“But, prior to Covid and the hack, we were still the worst in Europe for these waiting lists.
“It’s not fair to pin it all on Covid or the hack because the figures were shocking before that,” he added.
Cork has consistently seen some of the highest outpatient waiting list figures for ophthalmology in recent times, according to figures from the NTPF and surveys from the association.
A nationwide annual survey of members carried out by the association in 2019 found that the longest wait for public cataract surgery was in Cork county, particularly West Cork at 60 months.
The latest inpatient figures show that around 344 people are awaiting eye treatment at the South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital, with 17 of these waiting over 18 months.
The most recent outpatient figures from the NTPF show the situation is not getting any better.
In January 2020, prior to the pandemic, around 6,500 people were awaiting outpatient eye care appointments in Cork University Hospital. More than 2,700 of those had been waiting over 18 months.
At the end of September 2021, the total waiting list in Cork had risen to 7,371 while the number of those waiting more than 18 months was 4,217.
New waiting list figures also revealed that over 1,100 children were awaiting outpatient eye care appointments in CUH at the end of September this year. Around 550 of these had been waiting over 18 months.
Around 30 children were awaiting outpatient ophthalmology appointments at the Mercy University Hospital, with six waiting over 18 months.
Mr Weldon said some of the patients who have been left waiting over 18 months may have been waiting for up to five years.
He described the impact that these waiting times can have on both the older and younger cohorts awaiting treatment.
“Generally speaking, cataract patients are older,” said Mr Weldon.
“The big issue with cataracts is it reduces your vision so people with cataracts are much more prone to slips or falls.
“If you’re elderly and the bones are a bit more fragile, this leads to breaks and fractures and that leads to people needing hospital care, rehabilitation, wheelchairs and more. That’s an additional cost,” he said.
Mr Weldon said for the under 12 cohort, timely eye care is an “even more pressing” issue.
“There’s a condition called amblyopia commonly known as a lazy eye,” he said.
“The detection of amblyopia requires immediate detection. You can’t have a child waiting for eight months or two-and-a-half years to be seen because they need intervention in a timely fashion,” he added.
Mr Weldon highlighted a recent case in Tuam, Co Galway where a teenager secured an €80,000 settlement after a HSE eye clinic failed to take steps when he was aged five to address a lazy eye issue.
The high court case of Galway teenager Micheál Keane, now aged 14, gained national attention. Mr Weldon said this case highlights the very real impact of long waiting times for eye appointments.
“These waiting lists are having a massive impact on people’s lives,” he added.
Mr Weldon has called for action to address waiting lists and said the fact that people cannot access eye care outside their own community health organisation means that accessing eye care is like a “postcode lottery”.
“Why are people in Dublin being seen quicker than people in Cork, Tipperary or Tuam just because that’s where they live?” he asked.
“It’s a postcode lottery, or else you have to go private which is only accessible to those with the means to pay,” he said.
The South/South West Hospital Group and Cork Kerry Community Healthcare were contacted for comment in relation to this story.