Funding row threat to vital eye checks

NEW screening methods for an eye condition that causes blindness are under threat because of a funding row.

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Funding could threaten screening services for a dangerous eye abnormality
Funding could threaten screening services for a dangerous eye abnormality

Checks in Scotland for diabetic retinopathy, an abnormality of the eye, are carried out manually by trained nurses or with specialised computer software.

Experts say 'auto-grader' screening has a better detection rate, with fewer errors, and can reduce the workload of nurses by up to 50%.

But NHS Lanarkshire said the service had been available only sporadically due to a continuing row over who should fund the technology.

The health board said it had been forced to recruit additional temporary staff to maintain screening appointments for patients.

Short term central funding has now been agreed, but it is likely boards will be asked to foot the bill in the future.

NHS Lanarkshire employs five nurses to screen patients at four clinics. They check around 4000 pairs of images each year.

The board said it was "just" on track to achieve an 80% target screening rate.

Diabetic retinopathy is the largest single cause of blindness in adults of a working age in the UK.

The risk is increased in people who have had diabetes for longer and whose risk factor control, such as blood sugar, is poor.

All patients with diabetes in Scotland over the age of 12 are offered screening.

About 5% (28,800 people) of the Lanarkshire population has diabetes, which is slightly higher than the national average.

The prevalence of diabetes has increased 4-5% each year since a national screening programme was set up, an extra 1100-1400 each year.

Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce the chances of these abnormalities causing blindness by 90%.

A spokesman for NHS Lanarkshire said: "The software can help create additional capacity within diabetic retinopathy screening by reducing the time staff have to spend grading images.

"It will also help us to meet the increasing demand for this type of screening in the future.

"The diabetic retinopathy service in Lanarkshire has ensured all grading has been kept up to date.

"There are now national discussions about the future funding for auto-grading software.

"This will explore whether boards can fund this software themselves. Once this is resolved we will be able to plan our service accordingly. "

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "The auto grading system is an exciting development unique to NHS Scotland's diabetic retinopathy screening service and short term funding has been made available by National Services Division to support its introduction.

"It is up to NHS boards to determine how they wish to deliver their services and they are considering how this system will be funded in the longer term."

caroline.wilson@ eveningtimes.co.uk

There are now national discussions about the future funding

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