Ex-soldier waited years for cataract treatment before going to Wales

‘I’m a UN veteran, and it’s uncanny that I had to go back overseas to get healthcare’

Retired soldier Michael Smith, who went to Wales for a cataract operation.

Retired soldier Michael Smith, who went to Wales for a cataract operation.

 

Michael Smith, a 66-year-old retired soldier, had waited for more than two years for a cataract operation before he decided to have treatment in Wales last weekend.

“My eyesight deteriorated so much that I had to give up driving, I couldn’t read any more, I couldn’t cross the road safely and go places with my grandchildren. It had a huge impact on my quality of life.”

The Drogheda man had surgery on one eye in a private hospital there, which will be paid for by the Health Service Executive under the European Union’s Cross Border Healthcare Directive.

“I will be flying back to Wales next month to get the other eye done. The surgery was perfect. I can’t believe I was waiting two and half years without even being called.

“Within two weeks, I was done in another country. I can’t believe how good my vision is now in the eye I got done. You don’t realise how bad it is until the cataracts are gone.”

28 months

The average wait for cataract surgery across the country is 28 months, and up to five years in some parts, according to a survey of eye services carried out by the Association of Optometrists in Ireland.

A nationwide survey by the association found patients in West Cork are waiting five years for treatment, but in contrast, people living in Sligo and Leitrim face just 15 months on the list.

The shorter delays in both counties are down to an award-winning scheme which has involved greater co-operation between optometrists and hospital eye departments.

While public patients face significant delays, those with private health insurance are able to get cataract treatment in Ireland in just three months or so, the survey found.

After he had spent two years on the waiting list, Mr Smith emailed Minister for Health Simon Harris to complain, only to be told by the Minister’s office that the average waiting time is eight months.

Tríona Culliton, president of the Association of Optometrists Ireland, at launch of the association’s Children’s Eye-Care & Cataract Survey Report in Dublin on Wednesday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Tríona Culliton, president of the Association of Optometrists Ireland, at launch of the association’s Children’s Eye-Care & Cataract Survey Report in Dublin on Wednesday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

“I’ve served five years of duty in the Middle East, I’m a UN veteran, and it’s uncanny that I had to go back overseas to get healthcare that I couldn’t get in my own country.”

Ophthalmology waiting lists – not just those for patients with cataract problems – are among the worst in the public hospital system, behind only orthopaedics.

Latest National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) figures show 11,070 patients were in the queue in February, 726 of whom were there for more than 18 months.

Meanwhile, 40,928 patients are waiting for out-patient ophthalmology appointments, with 9,338 of these waiting for over 18 months to be seen by doctors.

Last June the HSE finally published a long-awaited primary eye care report which argued that nearly two-thirds of all treatments could be moved out of hospitals and handled locally.

This would offer faster treatments and let hospital services concentrate on more serious cases requiring specialist diagnostics or treatments, thus increasing the number of cataract operations that could be done.

The new system would take up to five years to introduce and cost €23 million. Everyone agrees that it should be done, the Irish College of Ophthalmologists (ICO) has pointed out.

‘Huge frustration’

The delays are a “huge frustration”, particularly since the recommendations of the HSE report were welcomed by the Minister for Health, but no money has been forthcoming, the college said.

Speaking to The Irish Times, the HSE clinical lead for ophthalmology Prof William Power said the plan got €1 million of seed money last year, but nothing this year.

Chief executive Sean McCrave and president Tríona Culliton of the Association of Optometrists Ireland, at the launch of the Children’s Eye-Care & Cataract Survey Report in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Chief executive Sean McCrave and president Tríona Culliton of the Association of Optometrists Ireland, at the launch of the Children’s Eye-Care & Cataract Survey Report in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

The HSE should now prioritise cataract operations, he said. Just 12,000 are done in Ireland annually, even though surgeons carry one out in just 30 minutes in a dedicated theatre, he added.

A dedicated cataract theatre is due to open in Nenagh this summer, while improved services are due for Waterford, too, which should significantly cut waiting times in the midwest and southeast, he said.

The Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital, Dublin, which funded the establishment of its own cataracts theatre last year, treats patients using National Treatment Purchase Fund finances.