Health minister backs bigger role for optical practices

Health minister, Alistair Burt, told delegates at 100% Optical that patients shouldn’t see GPs for every medical ailment, and that CCGs need to use the whole range of health professionals – including those in eye care ­– to innovate in health delivery.

Speaking for the first time to an exclusively optical audience on Saturday (6th February), the minister responsible for primary care services said that he was determined to ensure that the development of primary care was not centred solely around general practice and that all primary care professions are recognised and valued.

“I want to acknowledge the importance of eye health,” Mr Burt, Minister of State for Community and Social Care, told the audience at the Optical Confederation session at 100% Optical. “The role of primary care in developing services for the future is crucial and it’s vitally important that this includes eye care professionals, shaping eye care services so they are fit to meet the growing demand for the future.”

Keynote speaker during a session on “Unleashing Local Energies”, the minister said it was important that CCGs worked in partnership with the wider workforce in primary care when deciding what is best for patients.

“Radical change is required to realise our objectives for health and wellbeing, quality and efficiency and to simply be able to meet the challenges we are going to face with a growing population, and to meet the increasing needs of those with visual impairments.

“However, doing this is not just something for the CCG in isolation, but something in which the local health community has a shared interest and should involve a full range of health care professionals.”

The minister said there was already considerable scope for local initiatives to improve eye care services. He pointed to the range of test-bed projects and initiatives, from “Devo Manc”, through to New Care Models and the Better Care Fund that offer patient-centred, preventative health services.

“Clinical Commissioning Groups and local authorities can already commission directly from opticians to deliver services closer to patients, in more convenient locations. I hope that the increased focus on local area, clinically-led commissioning and partnership working in areas like Greater Manchester will further improve this.”

The minister also called for more analysis of the patient journey to assess whether people were being seen by the appropriate professional. “People shouldn’t see the GP for everything,” he insisted.”

Mr Burt heard from sector leaders that an equivalent of 500 full-time GP posts would be freed up if optical practices across England were commissioned to deliver a minor eye conditions services and all patients with eye problems were signposted to a community optometrist.

He encouraged optical professionals to drive reform by being involved in both local professional networks and, specifically for optics, Local Eye Health Networks. The minister finished his speech by urging the optical professions to press their case for better focus on eye care among CCGs. “I would like to urge you to continue to use your influences with local commissioners going forward to ensure that eye health is high on local agendas.”

Responding on behalf of the Optical Confederation, Katrina Venerus, who hosted the session, thanked the minister for making good so quickly, his promise to engage more closely with the sector and for his recognition that optical practices have an important role to play in primary care.

“We are encouraged the minister agrees that much more activity could be done outside the GP surgery and by his call for CCGs to work more closely with primary care professionals, including opticians and optometrists, in shaping local patient services and ensuring better preventative health outcomes.” said the LOCSU MD.

“LOCSU and LOCs will continue to argue the case for more focus by CCGs on eye health and we hope that commissioners can take a leaf out of the minister’s book and engage more closely with the optical sector.”

Nathan Garnett, 100% Optical event director, said: “We were delighted that the minister accepted the Optical Confederation’s invitation to attend the event and speak on such an important topic. The session was very well attended and early feedback tells us that this is exactly the type of debate our delegates want to hear.”