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The SA eye care market: Something is wrong

– Ed

According to The Vision Council of America, sixty-one percent of the American population wear some form of visual correction. In contrast, the South African situation is vastly different. SA Statistics reported after the 2012 census, that only 14,6 % of South Africans wear some form of visual correction. This is a statistic that is hard to come to terms with, however, other surveys have produced similar results. The global incidence of refractive error is reportedly 50%.

Something is clearly amiss. Yes, we are comparing first world with third world statistics, but even so,  the number of people wearing a visual correction in South Africa seems desperately low. According to the 2016 census, our population stands at 55,6 million;

  • Male 49%
  • Female 51%
  • Youth 36,2 %

The main concern is that such a small portion of our population will have a comprehensive visual examination to rule out ocular pathology and visual disorders. As optometrists, we are well versed with the dangers of asymptomatic, undetected ocular disease. Every single citizen, should have a routine eye examination.

Diabetes alone has some staggering statistics:

To quote Dr Larry Distiller, founder and managing  director of the Centre for Diabetes and Endocrinology: “The diabetes tsunami is here and we in South Africa are in trouble. Three-and-a-half million South Africans (about 6% of the population) suffer from diabetes and there are many more who are undiagnosed,” he cautions. It is estimated that another five million South Africans have pre-diabetes, a condition where insulin resistance causes blood glucose levels to be higher than normal, but not high enough yet to be type 2 diabetes. Optometry has a vital role to play in the diagnosis of diabetes.

There is a lesson to be learnt from the American programme; “Think about your eyes”, which was launched jointly by The Vision Council of America and The American Optometric Association. This public awareness campaign across America has produced some spectacular results. In 2017, it generated 3 400 000 incremental eye examinations for optometrists who had signed up for the programme and are listed on the “doctor locater”. It produced $752 000 000 additional eyewear and eye exam revenue.

In a recent Vision Online survey, it was revealed that there is a staggering number of empty chair slots in optometric practices across South Africa. The capacity is there, but somehow we can’t get the patient into the chair.

Because so many of the potential visual problems “don’t hurt”, there is nothing driving these people to optometrists’ doors, especially when this mass of population is embodied in ignorance. Clearly, what is required is education and awareness on the dangers of undetected ocular disease and visual disorders, but on a massive scale.

There are 3740 optometrists registered with the HPCSA. However, to illustrate the point, if only 3000 optometrists put R300 per month into the pot, it can generate a handsome R10 800 000 per year. This would be a meaningful budget to launch a national educational programme. In addition, there must be scope for advocacy by joining forces with government and NGOs.

The numbers tell us that something is radically wrong, but surely it must be possible to remedy the situation or at least improve it. Imagine if the number of 14,6% can be doubled!