Media event date: 
26 November 2019
Date published: 
27 November 2019
Media type: 
General public

Thank you for providing an invitation to attend the Parliamentary Friends Group of Eye Health and Vision Care dinner.

I acknowledge Andrew Laming [Member for Bowman] and Meryl Swanson [Member for Paterson] who co-chair the Parliamentary Friends Group for Eye Health and Vision Care.

Chris Bowen is speaking, I’m not sure if he’s here yet, but if he is, I acknowledge Chris, the Shadow Health Minister and my other colleagues. 

I’d like to recognise the enormous amount of work that’s been done to develop the World Report on Vision. I know that many people in this room tonight who had direct involvement with the report's development.

Many of you will be aware that Australia remains one of 44 countries with endemic levels of trachoma and is the only high income country to be included in that list. It’s probably not something we should be particularly proud of.

Approximately 90 per cent of Australians say their sight is their most valued sense. Sadly, however, more than half of Australia's population, some 13 million individuals, have a long term vision disorder. And Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience double the rates of distance vision impairment than other cohorts. So the report also highlights the challenges of age related vision loss and with an ageing population, obviously among other health issues, vision is a major, a major one. And so that is a challenge that we are having to deal with.

And the ageing population will significantly increase the number of people with eye conditions, especially more current and age related macular degeneration.

So the Australian Government continues to develop policies and invest in a range of programs to improve eye health services and prevent and treat eye conditions.

The Strong Eyes, Strong Communities plan aims to address issues of access and close the gap in preventable blindness rates. The Government is investing more than $42 million over the next four years to improve the eye health of Indigenous Australians and part of this includes improving early detection and treatment of diabetic retina therapy, funding to speed up access to eye surgery and additional funding to eliminate trachoma by 2020.

And so as you would all know, many Indigenous people experience vision loss and blindness and those who have lost vision often find it difficult to access the support services that they need.

And just out of interest, Fred Hollows was laid to rest in my electorate, in the town of Bourke. And it's significant that Fred's final resting place is in the Bourke cemetery amongst the communities that he served so well and still Fred is still spoken about by the communities in my electorate. And the contribution as a pioneer in indigenous eye health is certainly much recognised.

I actually represent, I think, either the second or third highest indigenous population in the Australian Parliament. So this work is very important to the people that I represent in my local electorate as well as the nation as a whole.

And so the Australian Government is committed to addressing eye health related conditions and providing access to quality eye care for all individuals.

The Rural Health Outreach Fund aims to improve access to medical GP-specialists, GPs, Allied and other health providers in rural, regional and remote areas of Australia.

The Visiting Optometrist scheme is trying to improve access to optometry services for people living in rural, regional and remote areas of Australia and it's a subject that I'm passionate about as Regional Services Minister.

And in case you’re wondering why a Regional Services Minister’s speaking tonight, the regional services portfolio covers regional health, communications and education. And so health is probably the primary use of my time at the moment, dealing with many of the issues around regional health.

Eye health checks through this scheme have more than quadrupled from around 7,000 in 2010 to close to 30,000 in 2017-18 year.

Some of you may be aware that the KeepSight Program which encourages people with diabetes to have proactive eye checks as well.

And with respect to the MBS, we have specific items to support collections to provide more holistic treatment for a range of conditions.

Prevention is always better than cure and data and research are critical to identifying more effective methods for preventing funding and managing eye conditions.

Well in turn, more than $200 million dollars has been provided to the National Health and Medical Research Council grants to support research into eye health conditions.

Australia remains strongly committed to maximising gains from the World Health Organisation's Universal Eye Health Global Action Plan and we'll capitalise on the momentum of the World Vision Report which we just heard about tonight.

I'm pleased the report shows Australia has good levels of cataract surgery coverage rates of more than 80 per cent.

I’ll also note that Lions Outback vision gets a well-deserved mention in the report. Their work to link patients living in rural and remote communities in Western Australia with eye specialists in Perth is a great use, using telehealth.

And I might say telehealth is rapidly emerging as a wonderful tool in a whole range of disciplines to keep contact with patients in remote areas with world class specialists in larger centres and we're only starting on the journey with telehealth and I think there's a lot to come.

So before I conclude I'd like to recognise the importance of the Parliamentary Friends of Eye Health and Vision. And Andrew (Laming) and Meryl (Swanson), congratulate you and your committee on that, and the contribution that the rest of the room and the guests here are making to tackle this issue.

So together we still have a lot of work to do to eradicate avoidable blindness and on behalf of the Australian Government, I welcome the release of the World Report on Vision.

The next steps for governments in the eye health sector is to continue to work together to achieve real and lasting change. And thank you everyone for the work you're doing and please enjoy the rest of the evening.