"Scotland's policy of free eye care has not yet narrowed the health gap between rich and poor but it is achieving important health benefits."
This is the message researchers will present to policy makers, clinicians and charities at a summit in Aberdeen as part of National Eye Health Week.
A major study led by the University of Aberdeen found that the introduction of the free tests in 2006 – designed to widen access and to provide a more comprehensive eye examination– has not been taken up equally across socio-economic groups, leading to greater disparity rather than closing the health gap.
The research, led by Dr Alexandros Zangelidis, also found that offering the service without charge delivered wider benefits than an improvement in eye health with an increase in the detection of the condition hypertension, or high blood pressure, which can lead to serious and potentially life-threatening health conditions including heart attacks and strokes.
Dr Zangelidis said: “Our research highlighted that although this policy was a success and led to more people accessing services and the detection of other health conditions which can be identified through an eye examination, such as hypertension, it did not close the gap in health inequality.
“Recent data from the Information Services Division (ISD) Scotland suggest that there are still socio-economic differences in the uptake of eye examinations of between four and five percentage points.
“As a result, we need to think of ways to make the policy more inclusive and reach parts of the Scottish population where take-up of eye examinations has been low. A more targeted raising-awareness campaign is needed to ensure the uptake of eye examinations is more equitable.
“We need to explore ways to effectively promote the benefits of the free eyecare in Scotland. For this reason, we have been working with a number of leading organisations and charities which are taking that message forward.”
The University has teamed up with Optometry Scotland to host an event for clinicians, policy shapers, academics and charities to debate the future of eye care and how to reduce the existing socio-economic disparities in the demand for eyecare. The event is titled “Spotlight on Scotland's Eye Health – breaking down barriers and collaborating for a more inclusive future” and it will be held at the Sir Duncan Rice Library in King’s College, Aberdeen on Wednesday September 25.
Dr Zangelidis added: “This is a great opportunity to bring stakeholders together to explore what more can be done to address this continuing health inequality within Scotland.
“We are delighted that so many leading experts and decision-makers from across Scotland will be joining us for this important debate.”
In addition to the University findings, attendees will also discuss the recently published ‘GOS Works’ report led by Optometry Scotland which shows that Scottish community optometry services save the NHS £71million a year.
RNIB Scotland will also give a presentation on accessible health information for blind and partially sighted people.
The event will conclude with a round table led by Optometry Scotland’s Frank Munro and Julie Mosgrove.