What does our 2023 public perceptions research tell us about the state of optical services?

Director of Regulatory Strategy, Steve Brooker, looks at some of the key findings from our 2023 public perceptions research

We’ve just published our annual temperature check on public perceptions of optical services. Ultimately, the GOC exists to protect the public, so it’s important that we regularly find out people’s views and experiences of eye care. This is the seventh time we’ve run the survey, with the first edition in 2015, so it’s interesting to look back at what has changed since we started these. 

One constant in every survey wave is that both public confidence in the optical professions and patient satisfaction with the service received has remained high. Over time not all healthcare professions have sustained this level of performance and people have generally become more demanding of service providers, so this is a track record for the sector to be proud of.  

In the current economic climate, survey data on access to services bears scrutiny. On a historical view, the good news is that more people are getting their sight tested. In this year’s data, 77 per cent of those sampled had their sight tested within the last two years – the highest figure since the survey began. Whereas in 2015 11 per cent of the sample had never had their sight tested, this has now fallen to 3 per cent.  

However, these figures mask some inequalities: for example, in our latest data 7.9 per cent of ethnic minority respondents have never had their sight tested compared to 2.6 per cent of white respondents. When we ask about factors that make people feel uncomfortable visiting an optician’s, 28.6 per cent of ethnic minority respondents cite the cost of the sight test compared to 14.8 per cent of white respondents. While the reasons for these differences may reflect socio-economic and other external factors, we should always ask ourselves as a sector if there is more we can do to reduce barriers to access. 

The survey data indicates other markers of vulnerability, for example respondents with a disability are less satisfied with the service they receive – this was also the case last year. There may be more that the GOC can do to support registrants to consider the diverse needs of patients, and this is a strand of work we are pursuing in our Standards Review. 

In all seven waves of the survey, we have asked respondents whether they would go to an optician’s or GP if they woke up with an emergency eye problem. For the first time this year, at a UK level, more people would go to an optician (36 per cent) than a GP (33 per cent). This feels like a milestone moment given this figure has increased each year since 2015 when the figures were 19 per cent and 54 per cent respectively. Yet, progress has been faster in different parts of the UK. For instance, in Northern Ireland, nearly half of respondents (48.5 per cent) would go to an optician’s compared to less than a third in England (30.2 per cent).

The GOC welcomes the ambition for registrants to meet more of the population’s eye care needs in primary care. We are playing our part in supporting registrants to provide more enhanced services, including by modernising optical qualifications. Given these services are not available on every high street, I would suggest part of the answer lies in making it easier for people to find out where they can access them locally. While some of this information is online, there is scope for it to be better joined up and promoted. The unique data the GOC holds about registrants, if combined with data from other sources, could help to achieve this and we are exploring how we can better share our data. 

While retaining a core set of questions each year, we keep some space for looking into different issues, and this time added questions on shopping habits. For me, a striking finding is that just over a quarter of respondents said they did not know the price of their sight test before their appointment. My experience trying to improve access to legal services, is that lack of certainty on price, as well as the price itself, can put up barriers. Interestingly, our survey suggests those respondents who knew the price ahead of their appointment were more satisfied with the service they received. Research published by the GOC to support our work on business regulation found price transparency is currently patchy, but those businesses not publishing prices are unlikely to be acting in their own self-interest. 

Tying these threads together, in the context of health services struggling to cope with the demand for eye care services and a cost-of-living crisis creating barriers to access, there would seem a virtuous circle within reach: expanding the clinical roles of registrants, making it easier for people to find these services locally, giving patients certainty about the price of these services, maintaining high levels of public confidence and satisfaction. 

See the full findings from our 2023 public perceptions research