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Delays in diagnoses of eye conditions due to Covid-19 causing concern amongst UK ophthalmologists

Posted: 01/07/2020

Eye doctors have warned that many patients in the UK will go blind because of delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Specialist eye units in the UK have reported a drop in referrals ranging from between 65% and 87% during the coronavirus lockdown, compared with the same period last year. Leading eye doctor Professor Andrew Lotery, a consultant ophthalmologist and co-chairman of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists academic committee, has stated that he is seeing only 16% of patients in clinic compared to pre-Covid times. He also commented that, “there are estimates that over the last few months more than 1,000 extra people have gone blind who, had they got treatment, wouldn’t have gone blind.”

The main condition causing eye doctors concern is a delay in diagnosing and treating wet age-related macular degeneration (wet-AMD). Wet-AMD occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow into the macula and leak blood and fluid, leading to scarring that causes loss of sight in the affected parts of the eye. The common symptoms of wet-AMD usually include:

  • gaps or dark spots (like a smudge on glasses) appearing in your vision, especially early in the morning;
  • objects in front of you changing shape, size or colour or seeming to move or disappear;
  • colours fading;
  • feeling uncomfortable in bright and glaring light;
  • difficulty adapting when moving from dark to light environments;
  • words disappearing when reading; and
  • straight lines (such as door frames and lampposts) appearing distorted or bent.

Wet-AMD needs urgent treatment, as deterioration can occur quickly. It is well known that if this condition is diagnosed and treated early, it can be brought under control with minimal impact on the patient’s sight. If the diagnosis is delayed and the condition is allowed to progress, however, the patient will suffer irreversible loss of sight. Some patients will lose sight altogether. Cathy Yelf, chief executive of the Macular Society, said: “It’s important if anyone notices any changes to their vision that they get it seen to as soon as possible.”

As well as wet-AMD, eye doctors are also concerned that patients with conditions such as glaucoma or diabetes (and who are therefore at risk of diabetic retinopathy) could be vulnerable because of delays in managing their conditions.

Arran Macleod, a solicitor in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches Cooper, shares the concerns of the UK’s eye doctors and ophthalmic charities, commenting: “Wet-AMD can progress quickly and, once detected, requires urgent treatment to give the best chance of a good outcome. However, in order to receive treatment, the patient will often need a referral from their optometrist and/or GP to a treating hospital.

“We frequently speak with patients whose eyesight is now far worse than it would have been but for delays in receiving treatment and understand the devastating impact that it can have on a person and their family.

“We appreciate that people are worried about coronavirus but would urge anybody who does have concerns over a change in their eyesight to seek advice from their doctor as soon as possible so that, if there are legitimate concerns about a deteriorating eye disease, it can be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible.”

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