Background: The prevalence of blindness and visual impairment are high in Ethiopia and use of services is limited. Determining the barriers to use of eye care services is critical for planning strategies to prevent blindness.
Methods: A population-based survey of the magnitude and causes of blindness and visual impairment in adults 40 years and older in the Gurage Zone, central Ethiopia was conducted. Among those individuals who had binocular or monocular vision <6/18, an interview to assess use of eye care services and reasons for a failure to use such services was undertaken.
Results: Of 850 adults with visual impairment or blindness, 802 were interviewed. Cataract surgery accounted for the primary service currently needed by the blind, followed by trichiasis surgery; service needs were higher for women than for men. Use of services (27.8% of sample) was associated with being male, binocular vision loss, and blindness. The primary reason for a failure to use eye care services were indirect costs (overall, reported by 40% of respondents) associated with accessing the service. There were significant differences between men and women in the reasons for not using the services and between cataract and trichiasis cases but not when comparing binocular vs. monocular conditions, or patients with visual impairment vs. blindness.
Conclusion: The majority of the causes of visual impairment and blindness are treatable (cataract) or preventable (trachomatous trichiasis). The main barrier for seeking service is related to the indirect medical costs of the service. This suggests that efforts are needed to create mechanisms that 'bridge' communities and eye care facilities. A holistic approach that deals both with the organization of services and the sociocultural factors in communities that affect use is needed. The organization of trichiasis surgery at peripheral health centres and screening programmes which identify and facilitate transport to hospital for cataract patients is one approach. The indirect burden of accessing eye care on the family may be lessened by encouraging patients to have surgery earlier (before they require assistance to reach the hospital), and by improving the efficiency of existing services. Promotion of services must be gender-sensitive, ensuring that specific characteristics of the sociocultural roles of women be considered in order to improve uptake among women. Training and placement of cataract surgeons in rural hospitals would also enhance provision of eye care for the rural population.