People with sight loss can face “very real barriers” when trying to access GP healthcare services, a new NHS-funded report has revealed.

The result is that visually impaired people could be more reluctant to attend routine GP or other medical appointments, have poorer quality information to help them manage their health, and may also neglect support, resulting in chronic conditions becoming unnecessarily worse.

The report, entitled Better Healthcare Access for People with Visual Impairment, follows work carried out over a 12 month period by the charity Focus Birmingham which supports the needs of the estimated 27,000 people in the city with visual impairment.

The work, funded by the West Midlands Clinical Networks, NHS England, set out to help identify and break down barriers experienced by people with visual impairment when accessing GP healthcare services.

Based on Focus Birmingham’s work the report found that practice staff underestimate the prevalence of visual impairment and, in turn, may overestimate their ability to support those with visual problems.

The report said: “This combination means that staff may be unaware of the barriers that people with visual impairment face in accessing primary care services. This perception inhibits the need to act and make positive changes to improve accessibility.”

The report calls for the introduction of training and awareness programmes to help frontline staff gain a better understanding of the prevalence and impact of sight loss and, in so doing, help break down the barriers to healthcare facing people with visual impairment.

“These simple interventions can provoke improvements which support people with visual impairment to access primary care services on a more equal footing with other patients,” it adds.

Focus Birmingham said they believed that people with sight loss face “unintentional, but very real barriers” when trying to access primary care, which can include physical barriers such as navigating within a GP practice, or communication barriers such as the inability to read written information, use the computerised check-in, or fill in forms.

Andrew Miller, Lead Optometrist at Focus, said: “Over the last 12 months it has been wonderful to work with several GP practices all across Birmingham. It has been really pleasing to see how keen the staff have been to improve their understanding of the needs of people with sight loss and to be able to offer better care for their patients.”

“We hope that GP practices and other healthcare providers will take notice of this report and its findings so people with visual impairment can enjoy a better and more rewarding experience.”

The report noted that visual impairment is a “mainly hidden disability” because the majority of people with significant sight loss may not present with any obvious signs, such as a white cane or guide dog. This, it said, leads to a lack of understanding amongst practice staff of the numbers of people living with sight loss.

It added that despite recently introduced NHS standards there was ignorance amongst frontline staff of ways to help improve communication with people with visual impairment. “Staff understand the challenges some people with VI have with safe movement, but there is less appreciation of other difficulties they may face when accessing primary healthcare.”

The report added that training was needed to better inform staff of the prevalence and impact of sight loss. “Short training sessions were shown to have a positive effect on staff members’ ability to understand and offer useful help to support the needs of people with VI. Placing flags on patient’s notes can help to highlight the individual needs of people who are not obviously visually impaired.”

The report concluded: “Sight loss can be disempowering if people need to rely on others for help and support with many everyday activities. However simple, sensible and empathetic actions can allow people with sight loss to live fuller and more independent lives.”

To download and read the final report please visit www.focusbirmingham.org.uk/news/48/better-healthcare-access-report-published or if you would like to get in touch with Focus Birmingham please call 0121 478 5200 or email jasmin@focusbirmingham.org.uk.