Many of the elderly in Singapore assume they do not need regular eye check-ups, but poor eyesight can seriously hurt their well-being. People who do not see well are three times more likely to have problems moving around and even doing daily activities such as bathing or eating. They are also twice as likely to be depressed or anxious than someone with normal vision. As such, poor eyesight poses a significant burden to a country like Singapore, which has an ageing population, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

In a speech at the Singapore National Eye Centre’s (SNEC) 25th Anniversary International Meeting yesterday, Mr Gan said of seniors: “Nine in 10 assume there is no need to have regular eye checks if they can see well.

“Some viewed eye diseases as a normal part of ageing and that there is nothing they can do to prevent vision loss.”

Professor Wong Tien Yin, SNEC’s medical director, said eye problems such as cataract are easily treated. Glaucoma is a major cause of blindness in Singapore, but patients’ vision can be saved if it is discovered and treated early.

Mr Gan told the 1,200 delegates: “Clearly more needs to be done for public education to increase awareness and promote regular vision and eye checks.”

Professor Ecosse Lamoureux, director of population health at the Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI), said people with diabetes, high blood pressure or close family members suffering from eye problems like glaucoma should have their eyes checked annually from age 40.

Prof Wong added that they do not have to see an eye specialist. Polyclinics, community health centres and even some optical shops can take a picture of their retina to check for cataract, glaucoma and macular degeneration.

Mr Gan noted that the National Healthcare Group, which runs nine of the 18 polyclinics in Singapore, have trained optometrists at some of the polyclinics who can provide diagnosis and counselling. These optometrists have a tele-link to specialists at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and can reduce unnecessary trips to the hospital for almost half the patients, he said.

He also highlighted the Singapore Integrated Diabetic Retinopathy Screening Programme, where diabetic patients can have their eyes screened with a retinal camera operated by trained nurses.

The images are sent to centralised centres where they are read by experts instead of the family doctor, as is the common practice now. This is already in place at eight polyclinics. When this is available at all 18 by early next year, it should help more than 110,000 diabetic patients.

Mr Gan said the private sector also has an important role to play as it provides 80 per cent of primary care in Singapore.

The SNEC is in contact with various professional bodies “to understand the issues and barriers to good eye care in general practice” and enhance awareness and accessibility to good eye care, he said.

The ceremony yesterday also paid tribute to the late Dr Arthur Lim, regarded as the father of ophthalmology in Singapore.

Several local and foreign speakers praised his foresight in bringing SNEC and SERI to their current prominence in the world of ophthalmogy.

Today, the SNEC deals with 300,000 patient visits and does more than 27,000 eye surgery operations a year. Many of these are complex operations, such as the over 350 corneal transplants done each year.