THOUSANDS of Gwent patients with eye problems will be offered the chance of outpatient appointments and treatments in the private sector, but paid for by the NHS, during the next two years.

Aneurin Bevan University Health Board is planning to outsource almost 4,300 ophthalmology outpatient appointments and more than 2,100 treatments from July this year until June 2021, at a cost of around £2.7 million.

Thousands of patients have already had outpatient consultations and treatments under such arrangements in the recent years.

But increased demand, coupled with workforce and recruitment difficulties for the health board in the specialty, means that a plan has been drawn up to continue outsourcing at least until the end of June 2021.

Board members will be asked tomorrow to approve the proposal and agree to a tendering process.

Previously, ophthalmology cases have been outsoruced to a combination of NHS and private providers - as happened last year - but a health board report states that efforts to find extra capacity with other NHS providers for the forthcoming two years has been unsuccessful.

The aim is for 1,592 outpatients and 796 treatments to be outsourced during 2019/20, with the bulk - 2,156 outpatients and 1,078 treatments - being sent out in 2020/21.

Remaining cases, comprising 539 outpatients and 270 treatments, would be outsourced in the first quarter of 2021/22. This would be mainly to provide a safety net while services transfer to the new Grange University Hospital, due to open in spring 2021, by which time it is hoped a longer term solution to the ophthalmology capacity shortfall in Gwent hospitals will be in place.

Outsourcing is also necessary, given the capacity issues in Gwent, to help the health board meet and maintain waiting times targets for referral-to- treatment pathways.

The report states that outside providers of such services are subject to rigorous clinical and patient satisfaction performance criteria, but performance in previous years has been "exemplary".

More and more patients opt to take up the opportunity of outpatient consultations and treatments with other providers, paid for by Gwent's health board, as this can mean the waiting times are shorter, and "patient experience and feedback has been very positive", states the report.

Free transport is also offered to patients, and this is set to cost the health board some £400,000 for this work during the next two years.

Again, feedback from patients who have used the free transport services in the past has been positive.