The National Artificial Eye Service, part of the NHS, makes up to 5,000 bespoke artificial eyes a year for people of all ages, from babies to pensioners. We spoke to Helen Lever, Operational Manager and Ken Barratt, Production and Quality Manager, to find out more about the service and its new scheme to prioritise orders for children…

Tell us about the service

The National Artificial Eye Service manufactures and fits ocular prostheses (eg artificial eyes, conformers) to all eligible patients in England. We also manufacture for our colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland.

We have a purpose-built manufacturing laboratory in Blackpool, where all orders from the Orbital Prosthetists (OPs) are sent. We have 18 Ocular Technicians (OTs) who make the eyes and 20 OPs who treat patients at either one of our 18 main centres or an outreach clinic linked to the main base.

We produce 4,500-5,000 artificial eyes a year for individuals ranging in age from newborn babies to older people who have been with us for all of their lives. The service actually originated during the First World War for injured soldiers returning from the frontline.

What’s involved in the process of making an eye?

Every eye is different and requires a number of skilled processes to manufacture and fit. First the patient will meet an OP, who will take an impression of the eye socket using a special moulding material. They will convert the shape into a wax replica and send this with a detailed specification into the lab.

A plaster cast is made which is used to produce an acrylic copy of the shape. The OT will paint the iris to the individual specification using oil paints. Once dry, a watercolour stain is added to the sclera (white of the eye) followed by silk embroidery thread to create the natural vein effect. A clear acrylic lens is moulded over the top to create the cornea and seal it.

The eye will be sent to the clinic for a final polish before being fitted and minor adjustments can be carried out if needed. If it’s not right, it will go back to the lab as a priority, where a technician will carry out any remedial work required. We are currently working to a 96% first time success rate.

All OTs and OPs undertake training programmes, developed by the NAES over many years, which can take up to a year to complete.

Is there anything you do differently when the patient is a child?

Children are treated as a priority across the service. In April we launched a new scheme, which means that their order forms are identified as soon as they arrive at the lab, enabling them to be prioritised out of the hundreds of orders we receive each month, and fast tracked.

It is very important to us that children get their bespoke eye as soon as possible because we need to keep pace with their growth. A child will need a replacement eye much more often than an adult and will need to be seen more regularly, possibly every three to six months. An adult may have their eye replaced approximately every six years, but will attend for regular checks and aftercare annually.

Who can families contact if they have any comments or concerns?

Phone the helpline: 01253 951131
Email: naes.naesinfo@nhs.net
Fill in our website contact form: www.naes.nhs.uk

This article first appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2018 edition of our InFocus newsletter. You can download the full newsletter here.