Children's sight at risk as 3,000 wait to see specialist
MORE than 3,000 children are waiting to be seen by eye specialists at Ireland's largest children's hospitals - a delay criticised as unacceptable by charity Fighting Blindness, which warned it was putting children's vision at risk.
A total of 3,098 children are waiting to be seen as public outpatients in the pediatric ophthalmology departments at the Temple Street Children's University Hospital, Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin and the National Children's Hospital in Tallaght.
Temple Street, which is affiliated with the ophthalmology department at the Mater Hospital in Dublin, has the longest waiting list for first appointments at 1,270. While a hospital spokesperson said that the majority have been given appointments with the HSE target of 52 weeks, there are still 25 children who have been waiting for more than a year to be seen. One child, who is an in-patient at the hospital, has been waiting to be seen for more than 18 weeks.
At Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin, there are another 1,195 children awaiting outpatient appointments, with 173 of them waiting for more than a year.
There are also 633 children waiting to be seen at the National Children's Hospital, with 125 patients waiting for a year and another 508 returning patients.
The figures are down from June 2013 when there were 4,200 children on the waiting lists at the same hospitals.
But Avril Davey, CEO of Fighting Blindness, said the long waiting times are a huge stress for the children and parents involved and potentially serious if children aren't seen soon enough to detect conditions that can lead to blindness.
"It's very important for children to be seen as soon as possible, not only to treat common conditions such as a 'lazy eye that could impact on their vision, but also for the early detection of rare conditions such as an eye tumour or childhood glaucoma that could lead to blindness," she said.
Noting that five people go blind in Ireland every week even though 75pc of all cases of blindness is preventable, she said it's not acceptable for children to have to wait so long to be seen.
"It's extremely frustrating and very worrisome for the children and their parents," she said, noting there are currently around 224,000 people in Ireland who are blind or visually impaired.
Among them are about 3,000 people who have rare genetic conditions leading to vision impairment or blindness which can be passed onto their children.
Dr Marie Hickey-Dwyer, an eye doctor based at University Hospital Limerick and President of the Irish College of Ophthalmology, attributed the long waiting lists to a chronic shortage of both community ophthalmologists working at HSE-run clinics and pediatric ophthalmologist consultants.
There are currently only two pediatric ophthalmologists at the Crumlin hospital, three at Temple Street/Mater Hospital and one at the Tallaght hospital, she said, adding Ireland has the lowest number of ophthalmologists in Europe.
The backlog, Dr Hickey-Dwyer said, "is due to cutbacks and a failure (by the Department of Health) to acknowledge the need for them. The government knows we're under-staffed and under-resourced.
A spokesman for the HSE said it has been working with "senior clinical staff to agree a process to validate waiting lists for children waiting for ophthalmology appointments. This is now ongoing and the HSE expect to be in a position to commence an action plan in the near future to address the waiting lists."
‘We couldn’t afford for Aoife to wait 18 months
The parents of a five-year-old girl who was told she must wait 18 months or longer to see an eye doctor said they had no choice but to pay for their own specialist.
Ian Davy and his wife Clare, from Ashbourne, Co Meath, said they were concerned when their daughter Aoife was told that there was a problem with her vision when she went for her first eye test through a public health nurse at her local school in January.
A nurse advised them that the waiting list to be seen by a public eye specialist would be at least 18 months, despite the Health Service Executive’s claim that children will get pediatric ophthalmologic tests within a year.
“We weren’t told in writing but the nurse said it would be 18 months or longer and we were led to believe it could be up to three years,” he said.
“We asked the nurse what we could do and she said ‘put her at the front of the class so she’s closer to the blackboard’,” he said.
But because Aoife had just started school and was learning to read, her parents were worried that it could set her back if she wasn’t able to see properly. The couple paid €250 in fees to an optrometrist and after three visits to the optometrist, Aoife was diagnosed as having a slight turn and astigmatism, which the optometrist was able to correct. “If we had waited 18 months it could have been quite invasive or could have hindered her eyesight development going forward,” said Mr Davy.