Bid to boost cataract surgery for Indigenous people

Bid to boost cataract surgery for Indigenous people

Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness across the world, leading to severe disadvantage for those affected and unable to access surgery.

And while Australia’s developed health system often ensures prompt treatment for those affected, this isn’t always the case, especially for Indigenous Australians.

Peggy Giakoumelos reports.

The Fred Hollows Foundation says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are 12 times more likely to develop cataracts that results in blindness, while surgery rates are seven times lower than the national average.

Jaki Adams-Barton is the Manager of the Fred Hollows Foundation’s Indigenous Australia Program.

She says there are a number of risk factors for developing cataracts.

They include age, family history, diabetes, previous eye trauma or simply getting older.

While cataracts cannot be prevented from developing or slowed down from progressing once they appear, they can be easily treated with surgery.

The Fred Hollows Foundation says it’s crucial that people have regular eye checks, something Indigenous Australians are less likely to do.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don’t have a history or a regime of getting their eyes tested. We know that around 30 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults have never had an eye test in their adult life. So if people can’t get diagnosed then they can’t get the treatment that they need. But then we also know that for remote and regional patients getting into surgery in terms of transport and location can be quite troublesome.”

Alexander Dennis is a resident of the NSW town of Walgett.

He was in his 40s when he began to lose his sight, but it wasn’t until three years ago that his vision became so impaired that he had to stop one of his greatest loves – playing music.

Now in his 50s, Alexander Dennis was one of 30 Indigenous patients to recently have cataract surgery at Bourke Hospital in outback NSW.

His surgery was performed as part of a pilot program run by the Outback Eye Service, The Fred Hollows Foundation, and funded by the NSW Department of Health.

He described the impact of the surgery on the Foundation’s website.


“The doctors told me that I need to go get the cataracts off my eyes because it was very hard for me to see. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t cook which is terrible because I like cooking. When I took my pad off my eye it was magic. I’m getting teary. I saw my wife, first. I just wanted to see her beautiful face and colours I could see the colours, green trees it was pretty amazing.”

Konrad Pesudovs is the Foundation Chair of Optometry and Vision Science at Flinders University in South Australia.

He says there have been various funding programs in place over the years to deliver cataract surgery to remote communities, but distance still means many people in remote Aboriginal communities fail to get treatment in a timely manner.

“There are a number of barriers to delivery. The primary one is remote location. A lot of indigenous Australians that are more than 1000km away from the nearest place where they could have cataract surgery, for example and other interventions. So the delivery of surgical interventions is essentially extremely difficult for those people. There are services that exist that fly people in for surgery and bring them in by road and so forth, but you need to get in a number of steps in a process lined up to ensure that these things occur. There’s quite a lot of qualitative research that’s been done around barrier to health care. These sort of things are substantial and they definitely affect the prevalence that we see.”

But Konrad Pesudovs says even when performed at a later stage, cataract surgery remains one of the major success stories of modern medicine.

“It’s one of the miracles of the 20th Century, that we now enjoy in the 21st Century. It’s extremely successful, it’s incredibly predictable. It is serious surgery where it’s possible to go blind but it’s so rare, that minor complications occur, and incredibly rare that serious complications occur . However in order to achieve those success rates you need a proper surgical suite. So that’s why it’s so difficult to have a mobile surgical delivery for example.”