Diabetic eye screening

If you have diabetes, you’re at risk of diabetic retinopathy. This is an eye condition where diabetes damages the small blood vessels in your retina. This can affect your eyesight. Eye screening for retinopathy can detect changes to your retina. Diabetic retinopathy is a treatable condition when detected early.

Diabetic eye screening and coronavirus

When you will receive a screening invitation

The Northern Ireland Diabetic Eye Screening Programme (NIDESP) was paused for most people in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Screening continued for pregnant women and a small number of priority patients only.

Work is ongoing to restore the programme safely while implementing social distancing and COVID-19 infection control measures. This means that a much smaller number of patients will be able to be seen at each clinic. Your appointment may also be at a different venue than the one you are used to attending.

In line with other regions of the UK, people who are at greatest risk of sight loss are being prioritised as the service is restored.

Extended screening intervals for those at lowest risk of sight loss

If you had no diabetic retinopathy detected at your most recent screening tests, you are in the lowest risk group and can expect to wait longer than normal for your next screening appointment. 

Evidence in recent years, endorsed by the UK National Screening Committee, has shown that is it safe for you to wait up to 24 months between screening appointments.  The chance of you developing sight-threatening retinopathy between these appointments is very small.

Extending the screening interval for those people who are at lowest risk, will allow the limited appointments we have available at this time to be targeted to those who are at higher risk.

What to do while you wait for your screening invite

While you wait for your next screening invite, it is important to be symptom aware. If you have any problems with your vision before your next screening appointment, contact your optician or GP.

Keeping blood glucose levels, blood pressure and cholesterol within the target range is important for your eye health. More information can be accessed on the Diabetes UK website or contact your diabetes clinic.

Safety at eye screening appointment

All steps are being taken by the diabetic eye screening service to keep you safe when you attend for screening. You will be asked to wear a face covering, go alone if possible and you may have to wait outside until the time of your appointment. While the environment may be different, the process for taking the photograph of your eye will be the same as before.

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, or have been in contact with someone who does, you must not attend your eye screening appointment. Contact the DESP booking office and your appointment can be rearranged for a time after you have isolated. 

Diabetic retinopathy

To read about the symptoms of diabetic retinopathy, go to:

Diabetic eye screening programme

If you’re aged 12 years or over and registered with a GP as having diabetes, you should have your eyes screened every year. There is a Diabetic Eye Screening Programme (DESP) in Northern Ireland. The programme will invite you to eye screening every year. You can contact the screening office to change the date or time of your appointment.

You don’t need screening for diabetic retinopathy if you have no light perception in both eyes.

Diabetic maculopathy

Screening also detects diabetic maculopathy, an eye condition that affects your central vision. To read about diabetic maculopathy, go to:

How diabetic eye screening helps

You need to go for screening whether you see a GP or hospital consultant about your diabetes. Eye screening is part of your diabetes healthcare.

Diabetic eye screening can detect early changes to your retina before you notice any difference in your eyesight. When the condition is detected early, you can get treatment to reduce or prevent damage to your sight.

Going to an optician or eye clinic about another condition

A routine eyesight test by an optician doesn’t detect diabetic retinopathy. You still need screening for this condition if you have diabetes.

If you already have an eye condition and go to an eye clinic, you still need screening for diabetic retinopathy.

Preparing for diabetic eye screening

When you’re going to your screening appointment:

  • bring your glasses or contact lenses and lens solution
  • bring sunglasses in case your eyes feel sensitive after the eye drops

What happens during diabetic eye screening

You go for diabetic eye screening in your GP practice, at a hospital or at a clinic. They use a camera to take photographs of your eyes. The test takes about 15 minutes.

If you’re aged over 50, you might need eye drops to dilate your pupils. Some people aged under 50 also need eye drops. This helps the screening clinic take good quality photographs. The eye drops take around 15 minutes to work, therefore your visit will take slightly longer.

Eye drops could affect your vision for a few hours, so you shouldn’t drive home after screening. You shouldn’t operate any machinery until your vision is back to normal.

What screening results can show

An eye specialist is responsible for checking your screening photographs. The photographs can show:

  • you don’t have any signs of retinopathy or maculopathy
  • you have early signs of retinopathy or maculopathy
  • you need a follow-up appointment to decide if you need treatment
  • you need to have more frequent checks

The screening service might need to take more photographs or see you in a special clinic if your original photographs aren’t clear.

Diabetic eye screening results

You should receive your results within three weeks of screening. The eye screening clinic sends your results by letter to:

If you go to a diabetes clinic or another eye clinic in a hospital, the consultant providing your care will also get a copy of your results.

When screening results are normal

Most people have a normal result. It’s still important to have your eyes screened every year. You will get an invitation to screening every year unless you opt out.

When screening detects diabetic retinopathy

Depending on the level of diabetic retinopathy and any sight loss, the screening programme might refer you to an eye clinic for more tests and treatment.

Treating diabetic retinopathy

Laser treatment is effective at preventing sight loss in most people. This treatment can:

  • stabilise the changes in your eyes caused by diabetes
  • stop your vision getting worse

Laser treatment doesn’t usually improve your eyesight. The eye specialist at the clinic can explain the advantages of getting laser treatment.

Reducing the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy

To lower the risk of developing diabetic retinopathy, it’s important to control your:

  • blood pressure
  • blood sugar levels
  • cholesterol levels

You need to know your target levels for your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. If you don’t know your target levels, ask your GP or the health professional responsible for your diabetes care.

You might need to make changes to your diet, lifestyle and exercise habits. Some people also need to take medication for their diabetes.

Opting out of diabetic eye screening

If you don’t want diabetic eye screening, you should speak to your GP or diabetic consultant. To opt out of screening, contact the Diabetic Eye Screening Programme (DESP) office, they will send you the necessary paperwork which you will need to sign and return. Without your signed permission, the programme will continue to invite you every year.

When you opt out, the DESP won’t invite you to screening for the next three years. You can opt-in again at any time by contacting the screening programme office.

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