A CHARITY has exposed a postcode lottery for cataract surgery in Essex, which means operations are being rationed for some.
Royal National Institute of Blind People research shows in south Essex, patients need to meet stricter criteria to get an op than those in the north of the county.
Cataract surgery is the third most common procedure carried out by the NHS.
The split means patients looked after by the new clinical commissioning groups which took over from primary care trusts in Basildon and Brentwood, Castle Point and Rochford, Southend, and Thurrock are less likely to get surgery.
To have an op, they have to satisfy a test, based on how far down an optician’s chart they can read.
In north Essex, patients merely need to show the cataract has an impact on their everyday lives.
Mr Rajesh Aggarwal, consultant ophthalmic surgeon at Southend Hospital, said the difference was merely down to money.
He explained: “We have to abide by the rules or we get fined. For some reason, north Essex has changed its criteria, but that doesn’t mean a patient from here can go elsewhere and get it sooner.
“It is the commissioning group where you live, which pays for it.
“We’d like to be left alone as clinicians to decide, but it’s a dilemma for the commissioners who only have a lump of money and have to pay for a hip replacement, a cataract op, or chemotherapy.
“More patients are paying to go privately because they can have it sooner, before it affects them, and because they have access to better techniques and a choice of lens.
“There is no solution to this, as every budget is being squeezed.”
Clara Eaglen, RNIB eye health campaigns manager, said: “Regional variation has created a postcode lottery which is simply unacceptable. NHS ‘efficiency savings’, achieved by cutting cataract operations are a false economy.
They leave patients at risk of depression, social isolation and fall-related hip fractures which are more costly to treat.
South Essex clinical commissioning groups say they will sometimes make exceptions to their rules – if patients can prove they are in exceptional need.
A spokesman said: “All NHS groups have a service restriction policy.
“The criteria for service restriction are based on clinical evidence, as to the patients who will benefit most from the treatment.
“The policy regarding treatment of cataracts in south Essex is fully compliant with Royal College of Opthalmologists guidelines.”
He added his group looked at each individually, based on patients’ individual clinical circumstances.
It was up to GPs or ophthalmologists to make a case as to why their patient was “exceptionally likely to benefit from the surgery regardless of the criteria”, he said.