Intended for healthcare professionals


The impact of new drugs on management of glaucoma in Scotland: observational study

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 15 December 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:1401
  1. D N Bateman, director (nick.bateman{at},
  2. R Clark, principal pharmacistb,
  3. A Azuara-Blanco, consultant ophthalmic surgeonc,
  4. M Bain, consultant in public health medicineb,
  5. J Forrest, senior information managerb
  1. a National Poisons Information Service (Edinburgh), Scottish Poisons Information Bureau, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH3 9YW
  2. b Information and Statistics Division of the Common Services Agency of NHS, Scotland, Edinburgh EH5 3SQ
  3. c Department of Ophthalmology, Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, Aberdeen AB25 2ZN
  1. Correspondence to: D N Bateman
  • Accepted 1 August 2001

Glaucoma is one of the most common causes of blindness worldwide (it is exceeded only by cataracts), and it accounts for 12% of cases of registered blindness in the United Kingdom.1 The vast majority of patients with glaucoma do not become functionally blind, but the pronounced visual loss these patients have, and its effects on function, are not considered by current statistics. Most cases are due to primary opening angle glaucoma, the prevalence of which increases in elderly people and is well established.2

There are two main treatment approaches for glaucoma—medical and surgical. Trabeculectomy is the standard surgical procedure. Twenty years ago, topical β blockers revolutionised the medical management of glaucoma, but in the early 1990s researchers advocated early operative intervention for glaucoma.3 Over the past five years, three new classes of drugs for this condition have been introduced—prostaglandin analogues (latanoprost), topical carbonic anhydrase inhibitors (such as dorzolamide), and α-2 agonists (brimonidine). Patients with glaucoma are managed almost exclusively by ophthalmic services.4 We examined the impact of new treatments for glaucoma by examining prescribing and operating statistics for Scotland (population 5.1 million), correcting for estimated age related prevalence.2

Methods and results

The Scottish Morbidity Record for acute hospital discharges (SMR01)5 was used to identify all episodes of trabeculectomy, including phaco-trabeculectomy (OPCS4 code C60.1) between 1989 and 1999. Data were also obtained on cataract operations and newer surgical procedures (argon laser trabeculoplasty and diode laser cyclophotocoagulation). Data derived from prescriptions from general practitioners in Scotland were analysed by categorising the data into the five classes of glaucoma treatment defined in the British National Formulary (section 11.6)—miotics, sympathomimetics, topical β blockers, carbonic anhydrase inhibitors, and prostaglandins—by cost and volume for 1994 to 1999 (the period for which data were available). Three drugs introduced after 1994—latanoprost, dorzolamide, and brimonidine—were analysed separately. The population likely to have glaucoma was estimated from census data, using a model based on published epidemiological data.2

The annual number of trabeculectomies increased from 1202 in 1989 to 1855 in 1993 and then fell to 951 in 1999. Over the same period, cataract operations increased by 98%, from 10 049 to 19 981 per year. We excluded argon laser trabeculoplasty and laser cyclophotocoagulation operations because only 144 and 64, respectively, were performed and the number varied considerably from year to year.

The number of items prescribed per 1000 patients with glaucoma increased from 7952 to 9930 (24.9%) between 1994 and 1999; this increase was higher than the general increase in prescribing (17.8%). Prescribing of topical β blockers increased by only 6.4%. The large increase in prescribing of new products was at the expense of older drugs—for example, there was a 47.7% fall in prescriptions for miotics. These changes resulted in a 61.5% increase in the cost of topical glaucoma treatments—by 1999 new drugs accounted for more than half of all this expenditure. Operation rates fell by 45.9%, from 46 per 1000 patients with glaucoma in 1994 to 24.8 per 1000 patients with glaucoma in 1999 (table).

Trends in glaucoma care in Scotland

View this table:

Other indices of ophthalmic activity increased. The number of eye tests increased from a total of 614 447 in 1995 to 657 213 in 1999 (6.5%) and from 46 845 in 1995 to 57 894 in 1999 (23.6%) for patients with glaucoma or their relatives; the numbers of optometrists increased from 979 in 1995 to 1343 in 1999 (37.2%); and the whole time equivalent of ophthalmic surgeons increased from 167 in 1995 to 182 in 1999 (8.2%).


Three new classes of drugs used to treat glaucoma had a dramatic effect on the pattern of prescribing and the rate of operations in Scotland. It is unclear whether the new topical treatments are as effective as each other and, more importantly, whether they prevent, or just delay, the need for surgery. Statistics on other aspects of ophthalmic health care did not support the theory that changes in the detection of cases accounted for the reduction in glaucoma surgery, since the numbers of eye tests, optometrists and surgeons all increased in the study period.


Contributors: DNB was responsible for the original concept and developed this in collaboration with AB and MB. Analysis of the database was carried out by RC and JF, who also took part in the initial discussions on the study. The manuscript was drafted by DNB and modified following discussion with all other authors. DNB and MB are the guarantors of the study.


  • Funding None.

  • Competing interests None declared.


  1. 1.
  2. 2.
  3. 3.
  4. 4.
  5. 5.