The government has announced plans to give specially trained opticians the power to prescribe medicines, allowing patients to be seen, diagnosed and treated on the high street.

Optometrists, otherwise known as ophthalmic opticians, are specialists in all aspects of eye health and can spot potentially blinding eye conditions such as macular degeneration and glaucoma, as well as early symptoms of other diseases such as diabetes, in which case the patient would be referred on to a GP for medical care.

Currently, there are around 10,000 registered optometrists in the UK, and the government allowed this group of specialists to become supplementary prescribers in July 2005. The move to extend this power to independent prescribing was first put forward for consultation by Commission on Human Medicines - an independent advisory body set up to give advice to Ministers - in August 2006.

Under the plans announced this week, the General Optical Council will take on a new role in helping to ensure that those optometrists wanting to become independent prescribers will receive the necessary training to practise safely. Once trained, optometrists will only prescribe for conditions of the eye and its surrounding tissue and they will refer patients to an ophthalmologist where more specialised care is required, the Department of Health explained.

Giving optometrists the power to prescribe independently will, in many cases, save the patient from a separate trip to the GP, and should thereby also help to stem the stream of traffic into surgeries.

Wide-spread backing

Support for the move has come from many sides. Rosie Varley, Chairman of the General Optical Council, says the move is a “significant development” for optometrists that builds on their existing clinical skills and experience. “For patients, it should mean that they get quality care faster, and more conveniently, than ever before,” she explained.

Kevin Lewis, president of the College of Optometrists, stressed that “specialist optometrists will provide a valuable resource in both primary and secondary care environments,” and that the College is “working with City University in developing Clinical Management Guidelines that will be available shortly to support optometrists undertaking independent prescribing.”

And Brenda Billington, President of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, said that it “will enable the creation of more opportunities for optometrists to work with ophthalmologists in shared care schemes,” adding: “We are pleased that the Minister recognises this potential and that suitable accreditation processes will be in place to ensure patient safety.”

Careful monitoring

But in a statement to PharmaTimes UK News, Rhod Daniel, Chair of the BMA’s Ophthalmic Group Committee, warned that “optometry prescribing will need to be properly monitored as the safety of the patient must always take precedence over convenience and economics.”

A spokesman for the DH told PharmaTimes UK News that the first optometrists should qualify for independent prescribing in the first half of 2008. But although the move has received much backing, not everyone will be entirely comfortable with the shift to specialist independent prescribing. Just a few days ago, a senior doctor raised serious concerns in a report in Pulse magazine over the fact that prescriptions issued by nurse practitioners have rocketed 49% since they were given the power to prescribe last year.