The provision of universal healthcare in PEI and other jurisdictions in Canada is aimed at helping Canadians access healthcare services, including eye care services, without concerns regarding their ability to pay . As such, one would expect a fairly equitable utilization of healthcare providers and services within a population. However, we report large geographic variations in eye care services provided on PEI. Specifically, we found significantly higher utilization rates of ophthalmologists and higher prevalence of glaucoma, cataract and diabetic eye care visits for Canadians residing in Charlottetown and its neighbouring region Stratford. The lowest rates were observed in Prince, which is also farthest from the region of Charlottetown. Since the prevalence of diabetic visits was found to be higher in Prince, but visits to ophthalmologists amongst those with diabetes-related visits lowest in Prince, it is less likely that the reported disparities are a reflection of true differences in eye disease occurrence, but are more likely to be attributed to differences in access to government-insured, geographically concentrated ophthalmologist offices.
In the largely privatized United States (U.S.) healthcare system, lack of health insurance is frequently cited as a barrier to eye care utilization [19,20,21]. In Canada, health insurance, or the lack thereof, is generally not a concern for eye care access because all provincial health insurance plans cover eye care services, provided that the patient has a medically diagnosed eye disease. However, our study reveals that despite having a publicly funded healthcare system on PEI, marked geographic disparities occur in eye care utilization and eye disease detection and treatment. This indicates that universal health coverage is, in of itself, not enough to reduce inequalities in access to healthcare services. Other factors such as travel times, absence from work and travel costs to the clinic may also be important factors in a patient’s decision to see an ophthalmologist. For example, Alberton, a city in Prince, is 122 km from Charlottetown, requiring travel times of approximately 1.5 h by car. This issue is further complicated by the fact that there are no public transportation options available. Similar geographic barriers have previously been cited as reasons for inequitable healthcare access and outcomes [22, 23]. Such barriers may be particularly pronounced for seniors, the poor and patients with vision problems. Geographic barriers may be responsible for the greater disparities in ophthalmologist visits observed amongst the oldest patient group in this study.
The prevalence of glaucoma in the present study differs from rates observed in the literature. A 2004 meta-analysis of population-based studies conducted in the U.S., Australia, and Europe reported the overall prevalence of primary open-angle glaucoma, a specific type of glaucoma, in the U.S. population ≥ 40 years to be 1.86% . Similar findings were observed in the Beaver Dam Eye Study . In Canada, the prevalence of self-reported glaucoma of any type was 2.7% in 2002/2003, with a trend towards increasing rates from 1994/1995 to 2002/2003 . The prevalence of glaucoma visits in our study (3.85%–6.38%) was higher than reported in the literature. Several reasons may account for these differences. First, our analyses included any patient visit related to glaucoma (e.g., diagnostic assessment, treatment and follow-up of any type of glaucoma) while other studies included only those patients diagnosed with primary open-angle glaucoma. Second, it is possible that rates of glaucoma are higher in PEI than in other regions. This is supported by data from the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS), which reported glaucoma rates amongst Caucasian Canadians aged 40+ to be higher on PEI (4.1%), compared to Ontario (2.6%) and the national average (2.6%). Lastly, each of these studies examined different time periods, with rising secular trends in glaucoma prevalence rates reported in recent years . As such, one may expect the prevalence of glaucoma rates computed using data collected in 2010–2012 to be greater than the prevalence rates reported from data collected in the 1990’s or early 2000’s.
Based on clinic examinations, the prevalence of late-stage cataracts in the Beaver Dam Eye Study in the U.S. ranged from 5.5% for people aged 55–64 to 52.2% for those aged 75–84, while the Blue Mountains Eye Study in Australia reported prevalence rates of late cataracts of 2.7% for people aged 43–54 and 67.9% for those aged 85+ [27, 28]. The prevalence rates of cataracts in our study were 3.43%–4.50% in 2012. These rates are likely not a true reflection of the prevalence of cataracts in the province, as cataract diagnoses by an optometrist would not have been captured in the provincially funded billing data utilized in this study.
As noted in this study, optometrists are distributed across PEI, while ophthalmologists’ practices are concentrated in the capital. These findings are reflective of trends nationwide [10, 29]. Utilization rates of ophthalmologists, as ascertained from the PEI billing data in our study, ranged from 6.70% to 10.90% across the five regions during the study period. This is significantly lower than the self-reported utilization of eye care providers (38.9%) by PEI residents’ aged 12+ in the 2010 CCHS, which included services provided by optometrists and ophthalmologists. This large discrepancy between utilization of government insured ophthalmologists reported in this study and the self-reported utilization of ophthalmologists and optometrists in the CCHS suggests that more than 66% of eye care services on PEI were provided by optometrists.
Encouraging ophthalmologists to work in underserved or rural areas through the provision of financial incentives or developing comprehensive teleophthalmology programs has been proposed as potential solutions which may afford patients, particularly those residing in remote areas, to more readily and conveniently access eye care providers. Such a funding model should be aimed at enhancing the outreach of eye care services and improving eye disease detection for residents in rural areas. While this financial incentive has been in place on PEI, it does not seem to have worked very well for eye care concerns . In August 2015, the PEI government started to fund optometric services for three eye conditions, namely dry eye, red eye and diabetic eye screening . This policy change affords a valuable opportunity in future studies to assess whether regional disparity in diabetic eye exams has been mitigated. Nonetheless, many other eye conditions served by optometrists are still not funded. The findings of the present study offer support to the PEI government to consider funding more optometric services to reduce geographic disparities in vision care.
Our study has some limitations. Firstly, the validity of the speciality and ICD-9 codes are unknown. Due to the strict payment schedules in place by the government, we believe the speciality coding for ophthalmologists is valid. It is unclear whether cases we identified through ICD-9 codes truly have the disease. While this may make comparisons with other studies difficult, as case definitions may vary, it does not invalidate the observed disparities across the five regions on PEI as the same case definitions were similarly employed across all regions. Lastly, we were unable to account for patients receiving care from optometrists because the database did not capture such services. It is also plausible that residents outside of Charlottetown received eye care from alternate publicly funded sources such as primary care practices and emergency departments. This is problematic given that eye diseases require specialized care. This problem is highlighted in a study conducted by Huang and colleagues which reported that most (85%) of the primary care physicians who claimed to routinely screen for glaucoma said they would refer the patient to an ophthalmologist or optometrist if they suspected the condition . As a result, these alternative sources of care alone are unlikely to adequately address the reported eye care disparities caused by geographic residence. Future studies are needed to examine this possibility.