Hindsight is a wonderful thing. As we mark one year since the first official lockdowns in March 2020, there's no denying that COVID-19 has turned everyone’s world upside down. With working from home, face masks, social distancing and virtual learning all becoming part of the norm, it’s no surprise that they’ve affected us in many ways — including our eye and ear health.
Using official online search data and customer surveying, we’ll take a look back at the key cultural moments within eye and hearing care over the past year, to understand the impacts they’ve had on our behaviour across the UK and Republic of Ireland.
We’ll also set our sights to some of the more positive changes we can look forward to, now we’re learning to adapt with the times.
Taking the lead at the top of the table, searches for astigmatism skyrocketed in July, following a viral image on Twitter and TikTok which showed what vision is like for people with astigmatism.
Also known as conjunctivitis, this fifth-most searched term is most likely connected to COVID-19, with research later linking conjunctivitis symptoms with the virus.
Glaucoma and cataracts
Searches for glaucoma and cataracts remained in the top ten eye health searches throughout the year, as non-urgent treatments for these conditions were postponed or cancelled due to the increasing pressure on the NHS, and some patients were having to shield at home.
Eye twitching and ocular migraines
Both of these conditions appeared in the top 20 searches this year, which are both symptoms of digital eye strain. As we all stepped up our screen time at home, it’s easy to spot the link.
Supporting the NHS
Number of NHS e-Referral ophthalmology appointment bookings in 2020
As the NHS were facing the rising cases of COVID-19, many non-urgent treatment appointments were cancelled or postponed to help relieve some of the pressure on our even busier hospitals. This explains the sharp dip in ophthalmology bookings we can see in March.1
Urgent treatment for sight-threatening conditions like glaucoma, cataracts, retinal detachment, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration was still a priority for eye experts in order to protect people’s eyesight – but understandably, many people were still nervous to come in for the treatment, resulting in some missed appointments.
In April, the government gave the go-ahead for opticians to remain open for essential and urgent eyecare.2 We were proud to be there to help out so our key workers in the NHS could concentrate on doing what they do best in hospitals across the UK.
Glasses and vision
Heard of coronavision? Last year, this newly-dubbed term came about due to increasing reports of people feeling that their sight had changed during lockdown.3 According to a recent YouGov poll, 1 in 3 people have noticed a deterioration in their eyesight as a result of increased screen use during the pandemic, and 42% of Specsavers customers have noticed a change in their vision since March 2020.4,5 This helps to explain:
83% increase in ‘myopia’ searches (July 2019 // July 2020)
83% increase in ‘reading glasses’ searches (April 2019 // April 2020)
50% increase in ‘varifocals’ searches (September 2019 // September 2020)
86% year on year increase for ‘children’s glasses’ searches (October 2019 // October 2020)
87% of people with children aged between 5 and 16 living at home with them worry that they spend too much time in front of screens but only 37% are aware of guidance around taking breaks from screens every 20 minutes.6
With symptoms of dry eye and eye strain, many people linked it to increased screen time. Whether that was working from home, virtual learning, or ploughing through all those Netflix shows – 60% of people said that they spent more than five hours looking at screens during weekdays.7
Blue light glasses
You probably saw lots of ads and articles about blue light glasses over the last year, too. That’s likely linked to an 812% year on year increase in searches for ‘blue light glasses’ in May, with many people showing concern about digital eye strain and potential damage from blue light. However, there isn’t enough research evidence at the moment to suggest that blue light blocking lenses are beneficial. Read our article ‘Do blue light glasses really work?’ to find out more about this.
Around 20% of people, and 29% of people working from home, were interested in getting glasses to help with screen use since the start of the pandemic – which could range from special lenses that help to limit screen glare to varifocals designed for screen use.8
We also saw an increase in people choosing to buy their glasses online, rather than coming into store. 71% of people who bought glasses from us online (between 1 August and 10 September) said that their choice to buy online was influenced by COVID-19.9
The impact of face masks
Searches for ‘how to stop glasses from fogging up’ in 2020
- Northern Ireland
When warm air hits cold surfaces, it creates a fogging or steaming effect (think opening the oven door with your specs on or coming into a warm building from the cold outdoors). But in 2020, glasses-wearers faced an even bigger issue – foggy glasses from wearing a face mask. Warm breath escaping upwards out of the mask and coming into contact with cooler glasses is the main cause of this issue, with 92% of people who wear glasses experiencing it.10
In July (right around the time mask wearing became mandatory in the UK and Republic of Ireland) searches for ‘how to stop glasses from fogging up’ shot up by a staggering 13400% from the previous year. In fact, the demand for a solution to foggy lenses was so high we sold out of our anti-fog lens wipes just 24 hours after we launched them.
This could also explain the 60% increase in searches around ‘how to put contact lenses in’ (August 2019 / 2020), suggesting that people were thinking about making the switch to contact lenses to avoid the issue altogether.
Face masks and hearing loss
Just like with eye health, many of the key moments in hearing care last year centred around the use of face masks and COVID-19 symptoms. We saw a number of awareness campaigns and articles focusing on the challenges for people wearing face masks with hearing loss, which included using clear face masks and accessibility badges to help improve access. Face coverings also created some added difficulties for people who wear hearing aids, with ear loops getting caught on and tugging at hearing aids while in-use.
Long COVID symptoms
As more people started to report ‘long COVID’ symptoms, the second half of the year saw a greater focus on hearing loss and tinnitus as secondary effects of the virus, which led to a 115% increase in June (compared to the previous year) for terms around ‘tinnitus test’. Read our article ‘Can COVID-19 cause hearing loss or tinnitus? here’.
Hearing tests at home
With government guidance to ‘stay at home’, and essential services adapting to new ways of caring, searches for remote and online services were unsurprisingly on the rise. In July, we saw a 173% increase in ‘hearing test at home’ searches (compared to 2019), with many looking for online tools to test their hearing remotely.
Hearing aid habits
In the early stages of the pandemic at the start of the year, ‘hearing aid’ searches decreased by 45%, perhaps as concern shifted away from routine hearing care, and towards shielding from the virus.
At the same time, we saw a 235% increase in ‘hearing aid batteries’ searches, showing that existing hearing aid wearers were looking for different ways to access their essential supplies under government ‘stay at home’ guidance, choosing to buy online rather than going in to visit their audiologists.
We also saw an increase in ‘maintenance’ queries, suggesting people were looking to make tweaks and clean their hearing aids at home.
Hearing aid search habits in March/April 2020
Helping from home
Between lockdown, shielding and social distancing, many services had to go back to the drawing board to make sure people could still get the help they need, in the safest way possible. For example, teleoptometry and remote services over video or phone were increasingly useful, even essential.
In April, we quickly launched our free RemoteCare service in order to help with essential advice on eye and ear health during lockdown. Our experts were available over the phone or by video call to answer any essential queries and make sure people were getting the help they needed.
Now, RemoteCare is an important way for us to keep customers safe, by giving them a quick call to see if we can help remotely before booking an appointment in store. Hearing aid users with certain models can even get their hearing aids tweaked remotely by their audiologist via an app on their phones.
‘Lockdown is affecting all our lives and there are already fears that people are delaying accessing essential health services. This solution removes a number of barriers, especially with health services under immense pressure. We hope that Specsavers RemoteCare, our video consultation service, will help people who might otherwise have gone to their GP or to the local A&E unnecessarily.’ Giles Edmonds Clinical Services Director at Specsavers
While this was a necessary measure during the pandemic, it might signal a change in the way some people choose to receive care now, and in the future:
People who would consider a video call appointment for minor eye conditions (by age)
- 57% (age 18-44)
- 49% (45-64)
- 41% (65+)
People who would consider contact lens trial support by video call (by age)
- 45% (age 18-44)
- 42% (45-64)
People who would consider a glasses replacement appt by video call (by age)
- 37% (age 18-44)
- 33% (45-64)
People who would consider a hearing aid initial consultation via video call (by age)11
- 34% (45-64)
- 17% (65+)
Methodology and references
The research for this report was carried out using a variety of methods. All keyword search data has been collected from the official Google search database for the UK and Republic of Ireland (Jan 2017 — Dec 2020). Other references include:
- NHS e-Referral Booking data (Oct 2019 - December 2020). Bi-weekly number of ophthalmology appointment bookings in 2020, with 4-week rolling event rate. Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mi-nhs-e-referral-service- open-data/oct-2019-to-december-2020/data-tables [accessed Feb 2021]
- College of Optometrists (2020). COVID-19 Urgent Eyecare in England. Available at: https://www.college-optometrists.org/the-college/media-hub/news-listing/nhs-england-covid-19-urgent-eyecare-service-cues.html [accessed Feb 2021]
- College of Optometrists (2020). Coronavision warning. Available at: https://www.college-optometrists.org/the-college/media-hub/news-listing/coronavision-eye-warning.html [accessed Feb 2021]
- Fight for Sight (2020). More than 1 in 3 people in the UK report deteriorating eyesight due to increasing screen time during pandemic. Available at: https://www.fightforsight.org.uk/news-and-articles/articles/news/screen-time/ [accessed Feb 2021]
- Specsavers Customer Panel (2021). 8 Jan - 11 Jan. N = 2,41
- Specsavers Customer Panel (2021). 8 Jan - 11 Jan. N = 243
- Specsavers Customer Panel (2021). 8 Jan - 11 Jan. N = 2,400
- Specsavers Customer Panel (2021). 8 Jan - 11 Jan. N = 2,400
- Specsavers Customer Panel (2020). Customers who purchased between 1 August and 10 September 2020 and 24 September and 28 September 2020. N = 179
- Specsavers Customer Panel (2020). 10 Dec – 14 Dec. N = 1,572
- Specsavers Customer Panel (2020). 25 June – 26 June. 18-44 N = 188. 45-64 N = 565. 65+ N = 498.