Why the UK needs private cataract surgery

Cataract surgeons (ophthalmologists) perform cataract surgery over 300,000 times per year in the UK alone (according to the NHS). The actual number is probably closer to 325,000. It is the most commonly performed operation in the UK. That number is growing yearly.

According to the International Council of Ophthalmology, there were 3,200 ophthalmologists practicing in the UK in 2012, with 90% of these performing surgery (2,880). This number is not growing nearly as quickly.

Roughly, that suggests that every surgeon (on average) performs 104 cataract procedures a year, and the demand is continuously increasing relative to the supply of cataract surgeons and facilities. For comparisons, I perform 480 cataract procedures a year.

Two factors fuel the upsurge of cataract surgery demand. One, the expanding ageing population is creating a larger demand on the system than ever before. Two, people want their cataracts to be treated sooner and at a younger age than before. Usually, people start looking into cataract surgery at the earliest signs of lens opacity.

Seniors are more physically active today than ever before. Physically active people rely on clear vision more. Seniors use computers, mobile phones, iPads, tablets, notebooks, and SAT navigation meaning their needs for perfect vision exceed any generation that lived before theirs. Further, seniors continue to need distance vision for driving and other sports activities.

Further, baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) expect perfect vision and have greater access to the internet to learn more about advancements that are available.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the population will increase by about one-third over the next 10 years. At the same time, the number of people 65 and over will double in the same timeframe.

Even today, the demand for cataract surgery outpaces the availability of surgeons and spaces in the NHS. As the demand increases while the supply of cataract surgeons (surgeons are also ageing) and facilities stay the same or grow very little, many surgeons have elected to provide private cataract surgery to reduce the waiting times for patients who can afford to pay.

While cataract surgery is free in the public sector, the NHS offers standard approaches to both extracting the cataract lens, and the available of lenses to replace them are also standard.

In private cataract surgery, patients can enjoy the benefits of smaller waiting times, access to advanced procedures (e.g. laser-assisted cataract surgery), and a wider availability of premium lenses. These premium lenses address problems like astigmatism, presbyopia, and refractive errors impeding distance vision – resulting in private cataract patients rarely requiring glasses of any kind after their private cataract surgery.

While there are costs to going private, many patients having cataract surgery privately avail themselves of private medical insurance, which depending on the surgeon, can cover all fees.