Chapter 13: Guidelines for the Provision of Ophthalmic Anaesthesia Services 2024

Published: 31/01/2023


The discipline of ophthalmic surgery encompasses the following areas: intraocular surgery, extraocular surgery, oculoplastic surgery, nasolacrimal surgery and orbital surgery. Ophthalmic surgery is undertaken in a wide variety of different settings, including multispecialty general hospitals, isolated units and large, single-specialty centres. All environments require appropriate staffing levels, skill mix and facilities. The ophthalmic anaesthetist has a key role in the organisation and management of the preoperative assessment of patients; the administration of local anaesthesia, sedation or general anaesthesia; the monitoring, prevention and management of adverse events; and efficient service delivery.

Anaesthesia for ophthalmic surgery is a specialised area of anaesthesia practice, providing care for a wide range of patients, from neonates to the very elderly.1 In addition, the quality of anaesthetic provision can have a direct impact on surgical outcome. Close teamworking with surgical colleagues is therefore essential.

Ophthalmic surgery is often required for ocular manifestations of systemic disease; patients exhibit a high incidence of comorbidity and uncommon medical conditions. Ophthalmic preoperative assessment clinics are essential in optimising and preparing these patients for surgery.

The majority of ophthalmic procedures are now performed as day cases and the use of local anaesthesia is widespread. Not all patients are suitable for this approach and general anaesthesia or local anaesthesia with sedation should be available as an option. All techniques have specific risks and benefits. Decisions regarding the type of anaesthesia should be made individually for each patient and each procedure.

1. Staffing Requirements


Appropriate staffing levels and skill mix should be provided in all units: multispecialty general hospitals, isolated units and large single-specialty centres delivering ophthalmic anaesthesia. For most operating sessions this should include surgeon, anaesthetist, two theatre-trained scrub practitioners, one trained nurse or operating department practitioner to assist with local anaesthesia/patient monitoring and one theatre support worker/runner.2,

C Strong

Dedicated, skilled assistance for the anaesthetist should be available in every situation where anaesthesia or sedation is employed.4,5

C Strong

Each department or facility that provides ophthalmic anaesthesia services should have a clinical lead (see Glossary) with nominated responsibility for ophthalmic anaesthesia.2

C Strong

There should be an identified group of senior anaesthetists who manage and deliver a comprehensive ophthalmic anaesthesia service, including the use of orbital regional anaesthetic techniques.2

C Strong

Many ophthalmic patients have significant comorbidities that may require optimisation and coordination prior to surgery. There should be a lead anaesthetist (with an appropriate number of programmed activities in their job plan and appropriate secretarial support) for preoperative assessment, who works closely with an appropriately trained preoperative assessment team.6,7 

C Strong

All ophthalmic surgery should be carried out in a facility that is appropriately staffed and equipped for resuscitation.2,8

C Strong

Staff should be trained in basic life support and there should be immediate access to a medical team with advanced life support capabilities.8

C Strong

In isolated units where no anaesthetist or medical emergency team is immediately available, there should be at least one person with advanced life-support training or equivalent.2,9 A clear and agreed pathway should be in place for isolated units to enable the patient to receive appropriate advanced medical care, including intensive care, in the event of it being required. Patients should be assessed preoperatively to ensure that they can be expected to be suitable for surgery in such an isolated unit.2

B Strong

If no anaesthetist is present in theatre, an appropriately trained anaesthetic nurse, ophthalmic theatre nurse or operating department practitioner should be present to monitor the patient during establishment of local anaesthesia and throughout the operative procedure. This should be their sole responsibility.2

C Strong

Wherever possible, anaesthesia in remote ophthalmic surgical sites should be delivered by an appropriately experienced consultant or autonomously practising anaesthetist. Where a trainee or non-consultant grade is required to provide anaesthetic services at a remote site, the recommendations of the Royal College of Anaesthetists should be followed.10

C Strong

If inpatients are cared for in isolated/single-specialty units, there should be medical cover and nursing care appropriate to the medical needs of the patients.11

C Strong

Where inter- or intrahospital transfer is necessary, patients should always be accompanied by appropriately trained staff.12

C Strong

All members of clinical staff working within the recovery area should be certified immediate life support providers and mandatory training should be provided.7,13

C Strong

For children, staff should hold an equivalent paediatric life-support qualification.7,13

C Strong

Anaesthesia associates

Anaesthesia Associates should be supervised in accordance with the RCoA and Association of Anaesthetists scope of practice. The Association of Anaesthetists and RCoA currently do not support enhanced roles for AAs until statutory regulation for AAs is in place and the scope of practice is defined.14,15


It is the responsibility of those leading departments of anaesthesia, together with their constituent consultants or autonomously practising anaesthetists, to ensure that AAs work under the immediate supervision of a consultant or autonomously practising anaesthetist at all times.15

C Strong

Only individuals who appear on the voluntary register, currently administered by the Royal College of Anaesthetists, should be employed in AA roles.15

C Strong

Where an AA is primarily responsible for the provision of anaesthesia, a named anaesthetic consultant or autonomously practising anaesthetist should have overall responsibility for the care of the patient during anaesthesia.15

C Strong

There should be a dedicated trained assistant (i.e. an operating department practitioner or equivalent) in every theatre in which anaesthesia care is being delivered by AAs.15

C Strong

Clinical governance is the responsibility of individual institutions and, for AAs, this should follow the same principles that apply to medically qualified anaesthetists, ensuring:15

  • training that is appropriately focused and resourced
  • supervision and support in keeping with practitioners’ needs and practice responsibilities
  • practice centred audit and review processes.
C Strong

2. Equipment, services and facilities


In areas where ophthalmic surgery is performed, resuscitation equipment and drugs should be immediately available, including a standardised resuscitation trolley and defibrillator. The manufacturer’s instructions must be followed regarding use, storage, servicing and expiry of equipment and drugs.8

C Strong

Where paediatric ophthalmic surgery is performed, appropriate paediatric anaesthetic equipment and monitoring should be available. Equipment should be checked regularly.16

C Strong

Anaesthetists should be trained in the use of, and be familiar with, all equipment that they use regularly. The anaesthetist has a primary responsibility to check such equipment before use.17

C Strong

Where lasers are in use for ophthalmic surgery, the correct safeguards must be in place.18,19

C Strong



Patients having ophthalmic surgery should undergo preoperative preparation, where there is the opportunity to assess medical fitness and impart information about the procedure.7

C Strong

Patients who require general anaesthesia or intravenous sedation should undergo preoperative anaesthetic assessment.7

C Strong

As part of preoperative preparation, the plan for the perioperative management of any existing medications, such as anticoagulant drugs and diabetic treatment, should be agreed, taking into account the relative risks of stopping any medication in the light of the patient’s medical condition and the anaesthetic technique required. Advice should be sought from the multiprofessional team (e.g. medical colleagues, clinical pharmacists, specialist nurses) as required, in particular for complex patients.7,20,21

C Strong

The majority of ophthalmic surgery is performed as a daycase procedure under local anaesthesia.22 Preoperative assessment should identify those patients who are not suitable for this approach and who might require general anaesthesia or intravenous sedation.2,23

C Strong



Where ophthalmic surgery is performed as a daycase procedure, the facilities should conform to best practice guidance. Day surgery operating theatres should meet the same standards as inpatient operating theatres.24,25,26 Room should be available for patients to be seen in private by the anaesthetist and surgeon on the day of surgery.2There should be a designated supervised recovery area and provision of reclining chairs for patients recovering from local anaesthesia should be considered.

C Strong

In units where ophthalmic surgery is performed, including locations that may be isolated from main theatre services, facilities provided should allow for the safe conduct of anaesthesia and sedation. This would include monitoring equipment, oxygen, availability of opioid and benzodiazepine antagonist drugs, a recovery area, and drugs and equipment to deal with emergencies such as cardiac arrest, anaphylaxis and local anaesthesia toxicity.27,28,29,30

C Strong

All areas in which ophthalmic anaesthesia is performed should have a reliable supply of the medicines required to deliver safe anaesthesia and sedation. Storage arrangements should be such that there is prompt access to them if clinically required, maintains integrity of the medicines, and ensures compliance with safe and secure storage of medicines regulations.31 In addition, anaesthetists and anaesthetic assistants should have access to pharmacy services, both for urgent supply of medicines when required and for clinical advice on medicines management, medicines administration or prescribing issues.

C Strong

Facilities should be available or transfer arrangements should be in place to allow for the overnight stay of patients who cannot be treated as day cases or who require unanticipated admission.

C Strong

Optimal patient positioning is critical to the safe conduct of ophthalmic surgery and for patient comfort. Adjustable trolleys/operating tables that permit correct positioning should be available.31

B Strong

Some patients, for example those with restricted mobility, may require specific equipment such as hoists to position them. Preoperative planning should ensure that such equipment is available and should allow for the extra time and staff needed to position these patients safely.

GPP Strong

3. Areas of special requirement


Recommendations for children’s services are comprehensively described in Chapter 10.16

Pregnant patients


Where possible, ophthalmic surgery should be postponed until after delivery. When this is not possible, guidelines on anaesthetising pregnant patients should be followed (e.g. use of left lateral tilt after 16 weeks of gestation).7Local anaesthesia, with or without anxiolytic sedation, is usually preferable to general anaesthesia.

C Strong

Frail elderly patients


Much of the ophthalmic surgical population is elderly and frail. Guidelines on perioperative care of elderly patients should be followed.1,21

C Strong

Very frail patients may not benefit from some types of ophthalmic surgery, and a conservative approach should be considered.21

C Strong

Dementia is a growing problem; it is estimated there will be 1.5 million people in the UK with dementia by 2040. Evidence suggests there is a benefit in performing early cataract surgery in these patients, maximising cognitive improvement and minimising post-operative cognitive dysfunction.21

C Strong

Services should be streamlined to make preoperative assessment, surgery and postoperative care as simple and effective as possible. Travel and repeated hospital attendance may be especially difficult for these patients.1,21

C Strong

Special care should be taken to assess social circumstances when discharging elderly patients into the care of an equally frail and elderly spouse. Home support from family or social services may be required; for instance, to ensure that postoperative eye drops are administered in an appropriate and timely fashion. These needs should be identified at preoperative assessment and support arranged in advance.1,21

C Strong

Older patients should be assessed for risk of postoperative cognitive dysfunction and preoperative interventions undertaken to reduce the incidence, severity and duration. Hospitals should ensure that guidelines are available for the prevention and management of postoperative delirium and circulated preoperatively to the relevant admitting teams.33

C Strong

Postoperative cognitive dysfunction is a particular concern and can disrupt otherwise stable home circumstances. The risk should be reduced as far as possible by minimising interventions and using local anaesthesia alone when feasible.1,21

C Strong

Patients deemed to be lacking in capacity should have a best interest meeting involving relevant stakeholders prior to booking a date for surgery. Such patients often represent high risk for both surgery and anaesthesia, and careful consideration of the risks should be considered. Conclusions should be clearly documented in the medical records.21,34

C Strong

Patients with limited mobility


Patients with severely restricted mobility pose additional problems when attempting to position for surgery.32Time should be spent preoperatively with these patients explaining the surgical requirements and assessing the patients’ ability to lie flat before a final decision to operate is taken. For patients unable to lie flat, a multidisciplinary discussion is recommended to consider alternative options for positioning or anaesthetic technique.

B Strong

Additional resources may be necessary at the time of surgery, and may include additional personnel, hoists, or extra time allocation on the operating list.

C Strong

Patients requiring complex surgery


Complex ophthalmic surgical cases often require specialised anaesthetic input. This may include patients having repeated ophthalmic procedures, long and difficult cases, and those potentially requiring specialist intravenous drug therapy, such as intravenous steroids, acetazolamide or mannitol. An anaesthetist of appropriate experience should have dedicated responsibility for operating lists containing such complex cases.

C Strong

Patients with systemic illness


Patients requiring anaesthesia who are systemically unwell should be optimised as far as reasonably practicable beforehand.35It is extremely rare for ophthalmic surgery to be so urgent that remedial measures cannot be taken. Arrangements for appropriate perioperative medical care should be made, with specialist input from other services as required.

C Strong

Protocols should be in place for the transfer of patients from isolated units who become ill unexpectedly. They should be moved safely and rapidly to a facility which provides an appropriate higher level of care.12

C Strong

Critically ill patients

Ophthalmic theatres tend to deal with high volume, low impact procedures and may not be set up for managing critically ill patients. Local protocols should be in place to facilitate the ophthalmic care of the critically ill patient.


Where necessary, critically ill patients should be anaesthetised in an emergency theatre suite, taking specialist personnel and equipment to the patient, rather than vice versa.

C Strong

When the specialist equipment cannot be moved, all necessary emergency equipment should be immediately available and transfer arrangements to a high dependency or intensive care setting should be in place.

C Strong

Procedures performed under local anaesthesia only

Ophthalmologists performing local blocks should follow the standards and safeguards required by their own college.


Sharp needle based blocks (e.g. peribulbar or retrobulbar block) should only be administered by medically qualified personnel, because of the increased risks of life-threatening complications.2 Intravenous access should be established prior to performing sharp needle blocks and also for any patient deemed to be at high risk due to severe comorbidity.2

C Strong

All modes of ophthalmic local anaesthesia may result in complications.22Practitioners should be fully aware of these risks and should ensure that they know how to avoid and recognise complications. They should also be immediately available and able to safely and effectively manage problems when they do occur.

C Strong

Patients with significant anxiety

Patients undergoing ophthalmic surgery often present with levels of anxiety disproportionate to the surgical complexity and risks involved. Severe anxiety may have a detrimental effect on the safe outcome of surgery. For example, a patient moving during surgery may suffer a sight threatening complication. Most ophthalmic procedures can be safely performed using local anaesthesia alone, but some patients may benefit from strategies to reduce anxiety such as hand holding, verbal reassurance, adjustment to drapes and administration of anxiolytic or sedative agents. Some anxious patients, following appropriate counselling, might be suitable for LA only surgery.36


Patients exhibit extremely wide variation in response to drugs used for sedation. It is difficult to and undesirable to have to manipulate the airway of an unpredictably over-sedated patient during surgery, and so administration of intravenous sedation during ophthalmic surgery should only be undertaken by an anaesthetist whose sole responsibility for the duration of the surgery is to that patient.2

C Strong

Patients do not need to be starved when sedative drugs are used in low doses to produce simple anxiolysis. Patients should follow fasting guidelines as for general anaesthesia when deeper planes of sedation are anticipated or sedative infusions employed.27,37,38

C Strong

4. Training and education


Hospitals should use the training opportunities available in ophthalmic anaesthesia to facilitate anaesthetists in training's acquisition of the learning outcomes of the RCoA 2021 Curriculum.39

C Strong

Anaesthetists in training may be given the opportunity to train in ophthalmic Anaesthesia as a special interest area of the RCoA 2021 Curriculum if the hospital caseload and capacity for training meet the requirements for this special interest area.39,40

C Strong

Structured training in regional orbital blocks should be provided to all inexperienced practitioners who wish to learn any of these techniques. This should include an understanding of the relevant ophthalmic anatomy, physiology and pharmacology, and the prevention and management of complications.2 Where possible, trainees should be encouraged to undertake ‘wetlab’ training or use simulators to improve practical skills.41,42,43

B Strong

Intermediate level training as set out in the RCoA 2010 Curriculum41should be an essential criterion and higher level training a desirable criterion in the person specification for a consultant or autonomously practising anaesthetist with ophthalmic anaesthetic sessions in the job plan. For candidates who are trained on the RCoA 2021 Curriculum, the special interest area in ophthalmic anaesthesia should be an essential criterion.39

C Strong

All anaesthetists working in ophthalmic services should have access to continuing educational and professional development facilities for advancing their knowledge and practical skills associated with ophthalmic anaesthesia.44

C Strong

All staff should have access to adequate time, funding and facilities to undertake and update training that is relevant to their clinical practice, including resuscitation training.45

C Strong

5. Organisation and administration


In single specialty centres, the anaesthetic department should adopt the generic standards described throughout GPAS. This should include a lead paediatric anaesthetist if children are treated.

GPP Strong

All ophthalmic patients should receive the same standard of preoperative preparation, perioperative care and follow-up, regardless of the type of treatment facility.6,24

C Strong

Many procedures do not have to be performed out of hours.35Anaesthetists and surgeons together should devise departmental protocols for the handling of patients requiring urgent procedures, to allow prioritisation from both surgical and anaesthetic perspectives.

C Strong

Patients assessed to be at high risk of serious perioperative complications, such as a cardiorespiratory event, should be carefully stratified for surgical and anaesthetic requirements, and may be unsuitable for surgery in isolated units without immediate access to anaesthetic/medical cover.

GPP Strong

The majority of patients are treated as day cases. Consideration should be given to prescribing suitable analgesics to take home; it may prove useful to use protocols to optimise treatment pathways.46

B Strong

Guidelines and protocols


National safety standards for invasive procedures should be adapted for local use as local safety standards for invasive procedures.45 The WHO preoperative team brief and checklist system, for example, could be adapted to incorporate intraocular lens selection to help prevent ‘wrong lens’ errors.47

C Strong

There should be a procedure for checking the laterality of the eye to be operated on prior to local anaesthetic block or general anaesthesia. This should include the eye being marked with an indelible mark by the responsible surgical team prior to admission to the operating theatre. ‘Stop before you block’ protocols should be adhered to.48Inadequately performed ‘sign-in’ is the primary cause of incorrect eye blocks.49

B Strong

The following local guidelines should be held and easily accessible:

  • practice guidelines for the choice of general anaesthesia or local anaesthesia or local anaesthesia with sedation for ophthalmic procedures
  • management of patients requiring intravenous sedation
  • management of patients requiring urgent ophthalmic surgery
  • escalation to higher levels of care and the safe transfer of patients
  • management of patients on anticoagulants and antithrombotic agents
  • assessment of postoperative cognitive dysfunction risks and the prevention and management of postoperative delirium.
GPP Strong

6. Financial considerations

Part of the methodology used in this chapter in making recommendations is a consideration of the financial impact for each of the recommendations. Very few of the literature sources from which these recommendations have been drawn have included financial analysis.

The vast majority of the recommendations are not new recommendations but are a synthesis of already existing recommendations. The current compliance rates with many of the recommendations are unknown, so it is not possible to make an overall assessment of the financial impact of these recommendations with the currently available information.


Hospitals should consider the following actions to optimise the efficient use of clinical staff and patients’ time while maintaining quality of care:36,50,51

  • use of integrated pathways to coordinate the patient journey51
  • use of screening to identify healthy ambulatory local anaesthesia patients for rapid turnover lists. This includes making use of cataract hubs where available51
  • immediate, sequential, bilateral cataract surgery (ISBCS) in suitably selected patients51
  • appropriate counselling of anxious patients who may not require sedation or GA once appropriately informed & consented36
  • separation of lists by subspecialty, ideally by procedure (e.g. a full list of cataract procedures) to improve theatre efficiency51
  • use of some dedicated service lists (no teaching) with experienced clinical staff.
GPP Moderate

7. Research, audit and quality improvement


Research in ophthalmic anaesthesia should be encouraged, and time set aside for this activity. Where appropriate, research projects should include patient and care provider involvement.

GPP Strong

Ophthalmic anaesthesia should be included in departmental audit programmes, which may include patient satisfaction, complications and adverse events.2,44

C Strong

All serious complications of anaesthesia should be reported, should undergo a ‘root cause analysis’ and dealt with according to locally agreed governance structures.

GPP Strong

Multidisciplinary quality improvement initiatives strengthen joint working and develop a cohesive working environment. Time should be set aside for regular joint governance meetings looking at both morbidity and quality issues.

GPP Strong

8. Implementation support

The Anaesthesia Clinical Services Accreditation (ACSA) scheme, run by the RCoA, provides a set of standards based on the recommendations contained in the GPAS chapters. As part of the scheme, departments of anaesthesia self-assess against the standards and undertake quality improvement projects to close the gap. Support is provided by the RCoA in the form of the good practice library, which shares documents and ideas from other departments on how to meet the standards. Further advice can be obtained from the ACSA team and department’s assigned College guide.

The ACSA standards are regularly reviewed on at least a three yearly basis to ensure that they reflect current GPAS recommendations and good practice. This feedback process works both ways and the ACSA scheme regularly provides CDGs with comments on the GPAS recommendations, based on departments’ experience of implementing the recommendations.

Further information about the ACSA scheme can be found here: 

9. Patient information

To give valid informed consent, patients need to understand the nature and purpose of the procedure. It is advisable that this includes discussion and documentation of potential adverse outcomes of regional anaesthetic blocks.52 The demographic includes many patients lacking mental capacity, and capacity levels may fluctuate. Care should be taken to ensure that the patient understands the treatment pathway at all times. Appropriate support from other agencies, such as mental capacity advocates should be sought where necessary. More guidance, including on providing information to vulnerable patients, can be found In GPAS Chapter 2: Guidelines for the Provision of Anaesthesia Services for the Perioperative Care of Elective and Urgent Care Patients.

The Royal College of Anaesthetists has developed a range of Trusted Information Creator Kitemark accredited patient information resources that can be accessed from our website. Our main leaflets are now translated into more than 20 languages, including Welsh.


Information about the different clinical management options should be discussed and suitable literature provided to assist patients in making an informed choice. The patient must have an opportunity to weigh up the available options.52,54

M Mandatory

Translations or interpreters should be made available if required.

GPP Strong

Information should be made available to patients that gives details of the surgery and local and general anaesthesia for ophthalmic procedures, as well as advice on what to expect on the day of admission. The Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Royal College of Ophthalmologists have a range of booklets available on their websites to help to inform patients.55,56,57

C Strong

Written instructions regarding the plan for the perioperative management of existing medications, including if and when to stop anticoagulants, should be given to the patient.

GPP Strong

Written information for patients should be easy to read. It should be available in an appropriate language and format for those patients who are visually impaired.58,59 It may be necessary to provide translations of patient information booklets into languages suitable for the local population.

B Strong

Areas for future development

Following the systematic review of the literature, the following areas for future research are suggested:

  • the cost effectiveness of ophthalmic anaesthetists, as opposed to other professionals, providing anaesthesia for ophthalmic surgery
  • risks to patients of non-anaesthetists providing anaesthesia for ophthalmic surgery
  • clinical guidance (e.g. blood pressure thresholds and blood sugar thresholds for patients under local anaesthesia)
  • management of postoperative pain following ophthalmic surgery
  • training methodologies for ophthalmic anaesthesia (e.g. evaluation of ‘wetlab’ and simulator training for regional anaesthesia).


Clinical lead – staff grade, associate specialist and specialty doctors undertaking lead roles should be autonomously practising doctors who have competence, experience and communication skills in the specialist area equivalent to consultant autonomously practising anaesthetist colleagues. They should usually have experience in teaching and education relevant to the role and they should participate in quality improvement and continuous professional development activities. Individuals should be fully supported by their clinical director and should be provided with adequate time and resources to allow them to effectively undertake the lead role.


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5. Association of Anaesthetists. Assistance for the Anaesthetist: A report by the Irish Standing Committee. London, 2007
7. Royal College of Anaesthetists. Chapter 2: Guidelines for the Provision of Anaesthesia Services for the Perioperative Care of Elective and Urgent Care Patients. London, 2021
9. Koolwijk J, Fick M, Selles C et al. Outpatient cataract surgery: incident and procedural risk analysis do not support current clinical ophthalmology guidelines. Ophthalmology 2015; 122: 281–7
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11. Royal College of Anaesthetists and Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland. Good Practice: A guide for departments of anaesthesia, critical care and pain management. London, 2006
16. Royal College of Anaesthetists. Guidance on the Provision of Paediatric Anaesthesia Services. London, 2020
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43. Budd JM, Hughes PK. A model for teaching peribulbar anaesthesia. Ophthal Anaesth 2015; 5: 6–9
46. McCloud C, Harrington A, King L. A pre-emptive pain management protocol to support self-care following vitreo-retinal day surgery. J Clin Nurs 2014; 23: 3230–9
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