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Health / Macular eye treatment now undertaken at Gilbert Bain Hospital

Move could put an end to elderly patient travel to Aberdeen

MOST patients with a sight-threatening condition who travel to Aberdeen for injections will be able to get the treatment done locally, saving greatly in time, patient stress and cost.

NHS Shetland carried out a pilot clinic of the macular degeneration injection service in Lerwick on 2 and 3 May when 17 patients were offered injection therapy at the Gilbert Bain Hospital.

The Shetland clinic means people will not have to make lengthy journeys by air or ferry to Aberdeen on a “monthly” basis.

AMD is the biggest cause of sight loss in the UK, affecting 600,000 people.

NHS Shetland director of nursing and acute services Kathleen Carolan said: “We are delighted that this treatment is now available in Shetland, as it is in the other islands, as it will have such a positive impact on patients and their families’ lives.

“This first clinic was a pilot to make sure that we have everything in place, including sharing test results between the two hospitals and we will grow the number of patients who will be able to be seen at the clinic over the next few months.”

The clinic is provided by a visiting ophthalmologist and supported by nurses in the Out Patient Department.

NHS Shetland director of nursing and acute services Kathleen Carolan.NHS Shetland director of nursing and acute services Kathleen Carolan.

Carolan added: “We hope over time that the treatment can be delivered by a team of nurses and NHS Grampian is developing their service in order to look at this being a viable option in the future.”

NHS Shetland interim chief executive Simon Bokor-Ingram said establishing a visiting service had been a high priority for the last two years and involved “a lot of work in the background” from teams in Shetland and Aberdeen.

He added: “We have also benefitted hugely from the input of patients and the local branch of the Macular Society which helped develop the service with us and highlight the issues that patients were experiencing. It is great to be able to report that this service is now up and running.”

According to the Macular Society, which has been supporting patients to share their experiences of travelling to Aberdeen for the sight saving treatment, it means an end of travel to the mainland.

Sufferers of wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD), need eye injections as often as every four weeks, without which they would rapidly lose all their central vision, leaving them unable to read, watch television or recognise the faces of their closest friends and family.

The duration of boat or air journeys meant that patients could spend a whole day accessing essential treatment. Some even gave up the treatment because they could not face the journey, according to ex-NHS Shetland chief executive Ralph Roberts.

Macular Society chief executive Cathy Yelf said: “Most patients need to return to hospital for injections, sometimes as often as every month, for life. Even with the shortest of journeys, this can have a huge impact on the individual, as well as the lives of their friends and loved ones.

“We’ve been extremely concerned that patients in Shetland, who are predominately elderly, have been facing these very long and arduous journeys for vital treatment.

“An on-island service will make a significant difference to these people and their families and help prevent unnecessary sight loss.”

Claire Hurst, who runs a Macular Society support group in Shetland, was diagnosed with AMD more than three years ago.

She has had 35 injections at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and has been making the long and difficult journey every four weeks since her diagnosis. But, without the treatment Claire knows she would go blind.

She said: “The thought of the long journey is overbearing and every month the thought of it dominates your life.

“For me there was no question as to whether I would make the journey or not. I know the injections are saving my sight.

“Not having to travel to the appointment this month has come as a huge relief. It is so tiring and the journey itself could be very unpleasant.

“I know it is a huge burden on everyone and I’ve spoken to and know of lots of people at our support group who are delighted they no longer have to endure these long and difficult journeys, including those who were too frail to make the journey to Aberdeen in the first place.”

Patients are also offered the option to fly to hospital, but this can mean a 5am start for those travelling the length of the isles, and they will not be home until 11pm.

Figures obtained through a freedom of information request revealed NHS Shetland could have saved £146,625 in transport costs for AMD treatment alone in one year if local treatment had been on offer.

That did not include the costs of people travelling as escorts for patients with poor vision.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said described a Shetland based eye service as “a great step forward”.

“The Macular Society and many others deserve great credit for their constructive work to achieve this change,” he said.

“I also want to thank the Health Secretary Jeane Freeman who understood the practical difficulties that regular travel to Aberdeen caused to elderly people in particular.”

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021