Indigenous, Local, News

‘Don’t forget’ Indigenous eye health in elective surgery return, advocates warn

The Fred Hollows Foundation and Australia’s only Indigenous ophthalmologist are calling for governments to prioritise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health when elective surgery resumes amid concerns over a cataract surgery backlog.

The foundation’s Indigenous Australia program manager Mr Shaun Tatipata and Dr Kris Rallah Baker say the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need to further address the existing eye health disparity between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.

Shaun Tatipata.

While it’s encouraging that some elective procedures, including cataract surgery, will resume from next week, Tatipata said Australia’s First Peoples were at risk of being at the end of already long waiting lists.

“We supported the Australian Government’s decision to put non-urgent surgery on hold as COVID-19 escalated. We also welcome their decision to recommence elective surgery now that the curve has flattened,” he said.

“This presents an opportunity to all federal, state and territory governments and private hospital providers to partner to prioritise closing the gap in elective surgery needs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, particularly cataract surgery.”

Tatipata said The Fred Hollows Foundation was calling on the government to ensure equity when it comes to cataract surgery and allow the Indigenous population to be among the first to access the procedure.

“We are asking for fair population representation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are already 3x more likely to be blind or vision impaired and normally wait 40% longer for cataract surgery,” he added.

“This pandemic has been incredibly tough for everyone. It has been particularly hard on people who have life-limiting health conditions but can’t access the surgery to fix it.

“The foundation looks forward to working with partners to restore sight among our nation’s First Peoples and recommencing work to clear the cataract backlog with the government and our partners.”

Rallah Baker, Australia’s first and only Indigenous ophthalmologist and president of the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, supported the message.

He said the COVID-19 crisis highlighted the need to address both the health disparities and social determinants of health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

“Timely ophthalmic care and in particular cataract surgery is key to maintaining an individual’s independence and mobility. Australia’s Indigenous Peoples must be appropriately triaged and included in our nation’s return to normal operations,” he said.

The Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association has previously urged all medical and healthcare professionals and organisations to commit to equitable treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples during the COVID-19 crisis.