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New report: Needle continues to move on Indigenous eye health

07/08/2019By Myles Hume
New Australian government data has suggested Indigenous eye health is moving in a positive direction, however advocates warn greater investment is needed to address issues such as cataracts, refractive errors and diabetic vision loss.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) yesterday released its Indigenous Eye Health Measures 2018 report. The report, now in its third annual publication, provides an evidence base for monitoring the changes in Indigenous eye health, as well as access and use of services. It compiles data from a range of sources covering the year up to 2018, and presents findings at the national, state and regional levels.

While the report identified Indigenous eye health statistics were yet to reach parity with non-Indigenous Australians, the new data indicated that in many cases more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were accessing eyecare.

Analysis of the figures showed the age-standardised proportion of Indigenous Australians who had had an eye examination by an eyecare professional in the preceding 12 months increased from 13% in 2007–08 to 16% in 2017–18.

Additionally, the number of ‘occasions of service’ for Indigenous patients under the Visiting Optometrists Scheme more than quadrupled between 2009–10 and 2017–18, rising from 6,975 to 29,161.

The report also found the estimated prevalence of active trachoma in children aged 5–9 in all at-risk communities fell from 14% in 2009 to 3.8% in 2017.

For cataracts, which accounts for 20% of Indigenous vision loss, the age-standardised rate for surgery increased by more than 40% from 5,743 to 8,105 per 1,000,000, between 2007–09 and 2015–17.

Judith Abbott, Vision 2020
Judith Abbott, Vision 2020
“However, too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still experience vision loss that could be avoided through better access to eye testing, affordable glasses and timely treatment”
Judith Abbott, Vision 2020

Despite this, the AIHW data showed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continued to wait longer for cataract surgery. In 2016-17 the median waiting time for elective cataract surgery for Indigenous Australians was 141 days, with 3.3% waiting for more than one year. For comparison, non-Indigenous Australians waited 89 days on average.

While Indigenous people had slightly lower age-standardised rates of hospitalisations for cataract surgery, among those with cataracts, fewer than 60% had received surgery for the condition, compared with around 90% of non-Indigenous patients.

The data also demonstrated only 42% of Indigenous people tested for diabetes had received an eye examination in the preceding 12 months, suggesting a significant number are not getting the recommended eye tests.

Vision 2020 Australia CEO Ms Judith Abbott said the report contained critical data to help track progress and help the sector work towards closing the eye health disparity in Australia.

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“[Yesterday’s] report shows that progress continues to be made to close the eye health and vision gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which reflects the hard work and commitment of many working in this important area,” she said.

“However, too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still experience vision loss that could be avoided through better access to eye testing, affordable glasses and timely treatment.”

Abbott said the AIHW report, in combination with the Strong eyes, strong communities – A five year plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health and vision, 2019-2024, reinforced the need for further investment in three key areas.

This included expanding access to timely diabetes screening, management and treatment; increasing access to publicly funded cataract surgery; and strengthening the availability of subsidised glasses across all states and territories – 60% of vision loss could be addressed through providing appropriate glasses, however the AIHW report illustrates a need to expand existing schemes to meet this demand.

The eye health disparity

The report also contained overall comparisons on eye health, showing that Indigenous populations continue to suffer vision loss at 2.8 times the rate of other Australians.

In 2017–18, a lower proportion of Indigenous Australians had received an eye examination in the preceding 12 months compared with non-Indigenous Australians across all age groups.

According to the data, the proportion of Indigenous Australians tested for diabetes who also had an eye test was lower across all age groups, and the hospitalisation rate for eye injuries for Indigenous Australians aged 35 to 44 was more than eight times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians in this age group.

Following the release of yesterday’s statistics, Vision 2020, along with the 17 other organisations involved in the Strong Eyes, Strong Communities report, called on the government to continue production of the annual AIHW report, and fund a second National Eye Health survey in 2020 to provide updated information.

More reading:

Indigenous eye health: $85.5 million more needed to bridge gap
New funding for Indigenous eye health ahead of election
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