OPINION | Future vision: The challenge of preserving vision in an aging population

Contributed to the Sixth Estate

We depend on our eyesight for virtually every activity we do, yet we rarely give thought to the implications of losing vision. However, this is the reality for the approximately 500,000 Canadians who live daily with vision loss that impacts their quality of life. Another 50,000 Canadians develop vision loss every year.

Population aging is the major single factor driving the surge in vision loss in Canada, since the major blinding diseases are strongly age-related (e.g. cataract, glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration). In the next 25 years, aging “baby boomers” (those born between 1945 and 1965) will more than double the number of Canadians over age 64, from 4.3 million in 2006 to 9.1 million in 2031.[1] Low vision increases the risk of falling; of becoming depressed (x3 ) and doubles the risk of dying.[2] The annual financial cost of vision loss in Canada is estimated to be $15.8 billion and this number will almost double by the year 2032.[3] Fortunately, three quarters of vision loss can be prevented or reversed with appropriate treatment.

To ensure that Canada can meet the eye health needs of our aging population, it will be important that Canadians have access to ophthalmologists – physicians and surgeons of the eye – who can work collaboratively with other physicians and non-medical professions involved in eye health in the delivery of safe, high quality, cost-effective patient care. To ensure that Canadians have continued access to ophthalmological care and expertise into the future, it will be necessary that we continue to train sufficient numbers of new ophthalmologists and ensure that they have access to operating room resources in communities across the country.

Given the very long training cycle of an ophthalmologist – which is in excess of 13 years – and the rapid rate of population aging, it is important to examine how we will provide public operating room access for these new practitioners. This will ensure that each new ophthalmologist is able to function to the fullest of their abilities and training to provide the eye care Canadians need. To date, coordinated planning to develop these opportunities has rarely been accomplished, with the result that full use of our ophthalmologist physician workforce is not occurring. This needs to change to ensure that therapies to preserve and restore vision are available to Canadians in need now, and in the future.

As the national association representing eye physicians and surgeons, the Canadian Ophthalmological Society (COS) believes that through continued dialogue and collaboration with governments at all levels, we can work together to ensure the most effective use of the continuum of eye care professionals and the appropriate utilization of resources in the best interests of patients.

Phil Hooper, MD, FRCSC is the chair, Council on Advocacy with the Canadian Ophthalmological Society.

[1] Burhmann RB, Hodge WG, et.al. Foundation for a Canadian Vision Health Strategy.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The National Coalition for Vision Health, “Vision Loss in Canada 2011.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sixth Estate.

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