Transforming eye care services through better connectivity

In our joint blog post Lisa Hollins and Radhika Rangaraju describe how NHSX is working with NHS England and NHS Improvement to transform eye care services in England with the aim of improving the quality of patient care and reducing the strain on hospital eye services.

We know that COVID-19 has radically changed the way we need to deliver services across primary and secondary care. We also know that the use of digital technology has accelerated at an unprecedented scale over the last year as we adapted to delivering services during the pandemic, transforming how clinicians communicate with patients and with each other.

This is abundantly clear in the challenges faced by providers of optometry and ophthalmology services. Even before COVID-19 we knew from our work with service providers that there was a strong appetite to use digital platforms to strengthen joined-up working across primary and secondary care. We were aware from our conversations with national clinician groups, such as the National Ophthalmology Pathway Board, of the clinical importance of being able to share images of the eye, clinical information and advice and guidance between optometrists and ophthalmology teams. They were telling us how sharing across secure digital platforms had the potential to reduce duplication in appointments, shorten the time between referrals and treatment and, where possible, avoid unnecessary referrals - ultimately improving the quality of patient care.

In the response to COVID-19 these requirements have become even more vital, supporting our efforts to keep NHS staff and patients safe by reducing the burden on hospital teams and, where appropriate, supporting alternatives to face-to-face appointments - key priorities across all our work at NHSX.

We’re now pleased to be able to update you on some key milestones in our work with NHS England and NHS Improvement to support the continuation of eye care services during COVID-19, and to transform the way those services are delivered in the future.

We have secured £7 million revenue and £1.5 million capital funding to support our work to improve optometry and ophthalmology connectivity in England. This funding, together with guidance and support for regional procurement teams, will enable the deployment and implementation of Electronic Eyecare Referrals Systems across primary and secondary care.

We’ve also made it easier for NHS organisations to procure these systems by launching a dynamic purchasing system (DPS) for Electronic Eyecare Referral systems. Through our work with clinicians and NHS England and NHS Improvement procurement leads, the DPS gives NHS organisations access to a list of suppliers which meet nationally identified requirements. We're now working with NHS England and NHS Improvement and regional procurement teams to use the DPS to procure Electronic Eyecare Referral Systems for their regions.

At the time of writing this blog, all seven NHS England and NHS Improvement Regions are currently in the process of securing Electronic Eyecare Referral Systems for local eye care services.

This is the culmination of our work with ophthalmology and optometry stakeholders to identify the most effective approach to supporting advice, guidance and image sharing between high street ophthalmologists and ophthalmology teams based in hospitals.

How this will help patients

Through widespread implementation of Electronic Eyecare Referral Systems, clinical teams will be able to review diagnostics undertaken along the clinical pathway. Optometrists and patients will be able to receive advice from specialist ophthalmology teams remotely. For patients, this will improve access to specialist advice and mean in many cases that patients can be offered advice locally rather than visiting their hospital.

How this will help clinicians

Direct, secure sharing of clinical eye care information and images of the eye will ensure patient referrals include accurate, real time information. This means optometrists can get advice and guidance directly from ophthalmology teams without the patient having to go into hospital. If as a result it's decided that the patient does need to be seen by someone, they can be referred directly to the right eye care professional in primary care or hospital, enabling quicker referrals and avoiding the need for multiple face-to-face appointments.

What are the next steps?

With all seven NHS England and NHS Improvement regions now engaged in work to deploy and implement Electronic Eyecare Referral Systems across local eye care services, we look forward to seeing widespread transformation in the delivery of these services. In the first instance this will support the recovery of eye care services during COVID-19, allowing clinicians to assess and refer patients safely and quickly. In the longer term, the widespread use of digital technology across eye care has the potential to transform the way cross-disciplinary teams work together, creating a model of culture and processes for embedding digital technology in the delivery of high quality patient care.

You can find more resources to support clinical teams and organisations to use digital ways of working in our eye care digital playbook. If you’d like to engage with our team around our work on digital transformation with the wider pharmacy, optometry, dentistry, ambulance and community sectors, contact us digital.podac@nhsx.nhs.uk