Researchers from the University of Auckland have been awarded a $1.2million project grant from the Health Research Council (HRC) to conduct New Zealand’s first population-based eye, ear and foot health survey to plug the evidence gap and improve equitable access to health services.
The overarching aim of the multi-disciplinary project is to promote healthy ageing in New Zealand, with a focus on improving access to health services for people living with eye, hearing or foot problems, particularly if they also have diabetes, said study lead Associate Professor Jacqueline Ramke from the School of Optometry and Vision Science (SOVS). “Currently, Aotearoa has little information on the prevalence and causes of vision loss, as well as other sensory impairments including hearing impairment and peripheral neuropathy, and the extent to which these co-occur with diabetes. This evidence gap makes it difficult to plan and deliver health services that are accessible for everyone.”
Kicking off in the second half of 2023, the survey (expected to take 9-12 months) will include about 1,600 Māori aged ≥40 years, and 3,000 non-Māori aged ≥50 years across Northland, South Auckland, Tairāwhiti and Rotorua. These targets reflect the anticipated vision impairment among Māori and non-Māori, while the younger age criterion for Māori reflects the earlier onset of sensory health conditions compared with non-Māori.
“The survey has a strong focus on equity and the study design will allow researchers to estimate all outcomes for Māori separately to non-Māori, with ongoing fundraising aiming to add Pacific people as a third population group,” said A/Prof Ramke. At its completion, the survey will provide robust estimates of how many adults in New Zealand are living with diabetes, eye, ear and foot problems. It will also build understanding on how accessible health services are for those requiring treatment, she said.
Study lead A/Prof Jacqueline Ramke
SOVS’ Professor Steven Dakin who, together with Eye Health Aotearoa (EHA), has been pushing for a national eye health survey for some time, said he is delighted with Jacqui’s well-deserved funding success. While it’s not a substitute for a national eye health survey, it will provide information to allow researchers to highlight which groups are facing the most pressing unmet need and encourage direct government funding of a national eye health survey, he said.
Project collaborator and New Zealand Association of Optometry (NZAO) president Callum Milburn said NZAO is very pleased about the funding news. “We are very aware that eye health services, including optometry, are not accessible to all New Zealanders which creates inequity in terms of who is able to enjoy good eye health. We believe the evidence generated by this project is a starting point to inform better responses to reduce this inequity.”
Fellow eye-health advocate, Blind Low Vision NZ (BLVNZ) CEO and EHA chair John Mulka also congratulated A/Prof Ramke and the wider research team on gaining the HRC grant. “Blind Low Vision NZ is proud to be a collaborator on the project, which will contribute to improving eye health and vision care in Aotearoa New Zealand,” he said.
The multi-disciplinary Auckland University-led research team, which also includes Associate Professor Islay Mactaggart from the International Centre for Evidence in Disability and the International Centre for Eye Health in the UK, will work closely with communities, service providers, professional associations and training institutions, including the NZAO, BLVNZ and Auckland University’s Department of Ophthalmology, said A/Prof Ramke. “I’m excited that this project is a collaboration between primary and allied health providers and represents an opportunity to promote whānau-centred care that is better integrated into the health system.”
NZAO, BLVNZ and the Buchanan Charitable Foundation are providing additional funding to the project while Te Tohu Paetahi Tikanga Rangatira aa-Tapuhi (Bachelor of Nursing Māori) at the Manukau Institute of Technology will also be involved.