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Deadline looms on Indigenous eye health parity

Australia is on track to meet its 2020 deadline to close the eye health disparity between the Indigenous Australians and the broader population, according to a new report.

The nation’s eyecare sector has released its 2019 Annual Update on the Implementation of the Roadmap to Close the Gap for Vision. Initially launched nearly eight years ago, the plan aims to align Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health with that of the non-Indigenous population by the end of next year.

“We’re making some really good progress and we’ve seen that what’s been recommended and implemented actually works,” University of Melbourne ophthalmologist Professor Hugh Taylor, who helped develop the policy framework, said.

“We have seen an increase in funding and a three-fold increase in outreach of eye services, but to meet community needs we still have another 25% to go.”

The annual update, unveiled at the RANZCO Scientific Congress last week, revealed that:

  • 50% of systemic issues identified in Indigenous eyecare have been fixed. Progress is being made on all of the intermediary steps, with almost 80% complete.
  • Outreach eye examinations received by Indigenous Australians have almost tripled in the last six years.
  • Cataract surgery rates have increased nearly 2.5 times since 2008, however a further 2,400 cataract surgeries are required each year to meet the population need.
  • Indigenous patients still wait 50% longer for cataract surgery in public hospitals, prompting calls for more timely access, resources and case management.
  • The number of Indigenous Australians with diabetes receiving annual eye checks for diabetic retinopathy has more than doubled during the past 10 years. With 155 retinal cameras being provided to Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHO), these rates are expected to continue to improve.
  • Subsidised schemes are being reviewed and strengthened to improve access to prescription glasses.

Taylor said significant advances were also being made towards meeting the World Health Organization’s target to eliminate trachoma by the end of 2020.

“Over the last 10 years, the number of community hotspots for trachoma has reduced from 54 to 13. Trachoma is easily spread between children so ongoing efforts are needed to maintain improvements in hygiene.”

As the final year of the roadmap initiative looms, Taylor said steps still need to be taken to guarantee eye health equity by 2020.

“The work being done by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health organisations and all of our partners in eye health has been instrumental in this progress,” he said.

“We cannot overemphasise the importance of linking primary health care with specialist eye health services.

“Ongoing support is vital to ensuring the expanded services are firmly embedded in the ACCHOs and other primary care providers to make sure that the changes are sustainable over the long term. It will not be possible to close the gap for vision without additional funding.”

Taylor also highlighted Vision 2020 Australia initiatives as priority areas for government. This includes The Strong Eyes, Strong Communities five-year plan, which calls for $85.5 million to fund initiatives and programs to tackle Indigenous eye health.