My Lords, the Government recognise that sight loss is a serious issue and that risks rise in an ageing population. The Health and Social Care Bill proposes that NHS sight testing will be the responsibility of the NHS Commissioning Board. The new public health system will help to prevent sight loss. We have proposed that Public Health England will design and fund some specific public health services, including diabetic retinopathy screening. We have also proposed that local authorities should have new responsibilities in relation to public health and health improvement.
I thank the Minister for that response. However, given that half of the sight problems experienced by around 2 million people in the UK could be prevented by regular sight tests and early diagnosis and treatment, what plans do the Government have to communicate this important public health message to local commissioners, health and social care professionals and the public? Does the Minister agree with me that reducing such a high prevalence of avoidable sight loss through regular sight tests and better access to eye care services should be included in the public health outcomes framework, and that specific attention should be focused on minority ethnic groups who exhibit a particularly high incidence of some sight-threatening conditions?
My Lords, I quite agree with the noble Lord that sight tests allow an invaluable opportunity to review all aspects of eye health, including investigations for signs of disease. The uptake of NHS sight tests is, I am glad to say, increasing. As regards messaging, the department has worked, and continues to work, with NHS Choices on the development of articles and videos to raise the profile of visual health and promote the importance of regular sight tests. Looking ahead, and as part of their new public health responsibilities, we propose that local authorities will have primary responsibility for the health improvement of their local populations. They could well choose, if they wished, to promote eye health and work to improve the wider aspects of health and lifestyle that contribute to improved eye health. We are currently consulting on the public health outcomes framework, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware. We are also consulting on the scope of the evidence base for public health and the interventions that will work best.
Does the noble Earl agree that one of the groups of people at risk of developing eyesight loss is people with diabetes? As part of the increased work to deal with diabetic retinopathy, should not everyone at risk have, in addition to their normal eyesight tests, annual eye screening? This service must not be cut but be expanded, as early detection and prevention is right for the patient, their family and ultimately the taxpayer, as thousands of pounds that would otherwise have to be spent on dealing with preventable complications will be saved.
My Lords, the noble Lord makes some extremely important points. This is a good news story and very good progress has been made; more people with diabetes are being offered screening for retinopathy than ever before, and to higher standards. More people are being offered screening now than when the screening programme was announced in January 2003. At that time, 1.3 million people with diagnosed diabetes in England were being screened. The latest figures, for December 2010, show that 2.21 million people were offered screening.
My Lords, various categories of patients are eligible for free sight tests. Free tests are available under the NHS to a large number of people, including people aged 60 and over, children under 16 and people on low incomes. As I mentioned, the uptake of sight tests is increasing, which shows that people are continuing to get good access to NHS eye care services; but as regards an extension of the numbers, that will of course depend on available funding.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that one of the commonest causes of progressive visual failure in the elderly is macular degeneration? There are two forms: the dry form is currently not amenable to treatment, although research suggests that one day it may be; but the wet form can in many cases be arrested by expensive injections. Is he aware that some PCTs are allowing that particular form of treatment to be given only to one eye, allowing the other eye to deteriorate? Does he not agree that that—if he will forgive the pun—is an unfortunate and short-sighted policy?
My Lords, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence—NICE—has recommended treatment with Lucentis as a clinically effective and cost-effective use of NHS resources for patients with wet, age-related macular degeneration meeting specific clinical criteria. I am aware that, initially, the practice mentioned by the noble Lord was being reported, but I think that it is less true now. I will of course check whether what the noble Lord says continues to apply. I would just say that primary care trusts are legally required to make funding available to enable clinicians to prescribe Lucentis, which is the drug of choice for this, in line with guidance. The PCT allocations take account of expected growth in the drugs spending, including the impact of this type of technology.
My Lords, last week the BBC programme “In Touch” asked the question, “Can the NHS cope with the demand for treatment for the UK’s most common cause of blindness?”—a question which follows on from the one asked by the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant. The programme was made with the recently formed Macular Disease Society, which aims to raise awareness and money for both dry and wet macular disease. Will the noble Earl join me in welcoming the creation of this society, and will the Government ensure that the society is involved in the consultation process leading to the strategy for the early diagnosis and treatment of macular disease?
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness in welcoming the formation of the Macular Disease Society, and I can assure her that my department will wish to engage closely with it; I think that it is a very positive development. Reducing avoidable sight loss is clearly an issue that we have to take seriously. The prevention of sight loss will be an aim of work undertaken across the new public health system, as I have indicated. At national level we are proposing that Public Health England will design some specific public health services including screening, as has been mentioned, and locally we propose new responsibilities for local authorities.
As financial resources are limited, is not avoidable sight loss an absolute public health priority? Is it not better to spend money on that than restricting small and large retailers further in terms of their display of tobacco in a market that is declining in any case?
My Lords, I will simply say to my noble friend that public health clearly has an important contribution to make to reducing avoidable sight loss by addressing the obvious risk factors for sight loss, but also by delivering on our general public health outcomes, such as reducing smoking and obesity and diabetes, all of which are associated with the development of eye disease. The tobacco strategy has a direct bearing on this question.