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The Health Minister John Denham
"The 20 Million Pounds here is to increase the number of operations"
 real 28k

BBC Health Reporter Karen Allen
There is a shortage of specialist staff
 real 28k

Wednesday, 9 February, 2000, 14:32 GMT
Cataract surgery delayed

Delays of 18 months for surgery are common

Eye surgeons are warning that thousands of cataract operations are being delayed because of a severe shortage of consultants.

Official figures for England show that patients, most of them elderly, wait an average of seven months for a cataract operation.

But in some hospitals delays of up to 18 months are routine. It is estimated that 2.3million people need cataract surgery in the UK.

Surgeons say that there are enough trained doctors available - but not the funds to employ them.

The government has earmarked 20m to improve services.

The long waits for cataract operations that too many people face are not acceptable
John Denham, Health Minister
Critics say the money will pay for capital costs and not staff, but Health Minister John Denham promised that more operations would be carried out.

Cataract surgery can prevent blindness and is without question invaluable, but one consultant can cost a hospital 500,000 a year.

Competing pressures for resources come from patients suffering from life-threatening conditions such as heart disease.

Woefully inadequate

The Essex County Hospital is one unit that is struggling to cope with demand.

Even though it carries out 12 cataract operations a day a fifth of all patients still wait for more than a year for surgery.

Andrew May, director of surgery, said: "We only have three consultants for 320,000 people and that is woefully inadequate.

"The problem is that eye surgery is very much consultant consuming surgery because it is surgery that experienced surgeons need to do."

Some patients are so tired of waiting that they have travelled to India for surgery - for half the price of a private cataract operation in the UK.

Among those who have travelled half way around the world is Fred Wade.

He said: "I couldn't work and the quality of my life was suffering because I was reading through a magnifying glass and sitting two or three feet away from the television."

"The idea of India to me was like a lifeline."

Lynne Nicholl, eye health policy officer for the Royal National Institute for the Blind, said; "The longer people with cataracts wait for surgery, the more their sight deteriorates and the more they are at risk of serious injury from falls, burns and scalding.

"Generally people with cataracts are not registered blind or partially sighted even though they are eligible because their sight loss is temporary. This means that they tend to get missed by social services and become a very vulnerable at risk group in the community."

Government pledge

Mr Denham said the 20m being made available would enable about 50 sites to streamline cataract treatment so patients make far fewer visits to the optician, GP, and hospital.

He promised that the modernisation sites would ensure a maximum of six months from referral to surgery.

Mr Denham also said treatment and recovery facilities would be improved and expanded to treat more patients.

Some parts of the country would set up local outpatient clinics, so that patients only have to travel to hospital for the operation itself.

Mr Denham said: "The long waits for cataract operations that too many people face are not acceptable.

"This investment will speed up the system, change the way we work and make much better use of the skilled staff we have got at the moment.

"We hope that this is going to mean that instead of there being an average six month wait for cataract operations that is will become the maximum."

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See also:
17 Mar 99 |  Health
Eyesight cure for the ageing
05 Feb 99 |  Health
Screening misses babies' cataracts
19 Mar 99 |  Health
Patients win apology for eye operation blunder

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