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What do you think of when you think of your Optometrist’s or Optician’s Eye Care practice. Somewhere to get your spectacles updated? Somewhere to get your contact lenses prescribed and checked? Somewhere you go which can cost you a few hard-earned pounds? Somewhere you go to have the health of your eyes examined and monitored? I wonder if this short list I have drawn up is roughly in keeping with the your perception of our profession, certainly there will be a range of views across the general public.

I want to write a little about where I think (as an Optometrist) we are currently and how hopefully you, the public, currently regard our profession and services, also how you might view the positive evolution in Eye Care that is a part of changes in Health Care in the UK in general. 

I believe Optometry is a great profession that we should all be proud of and celebrate.  As a group we work across a diverse range of settings – mostly in practice, whether it’s in community practice providing vital frontline eye-care to the public, in hospitals pushing the boundaries of our professional scope of practice, in universities teaching the next generation and performing top quality research or those in industry developing exciting new equipment and products. There are also hundreds of UK Optometrists and Opticians involved each year in voluntary charity work in the UK and in developing countries helping people who are not fortunate enough to have access to the eye-care services that we can easily take for granted in this country. 

In practice we have a wide range of skills - we maximise visual potential through our expertise with spectacles and contact lenses, detect and treat ocular conditions, refer serious conditions to our colleagues in the hospital eye service, detect binocular vision anomalies and help to support those with visual impairment. 

In the 13 years since I qualified the role and scope of the optometrist has changed - the equipment and products available to us, and also how we relate to other professions have all developed. Retinal cameras, microscopes, OCTs (scanning equipment) to name just few of the wonderful instruments that have transformed how we look at and record certain ocular pathologies and the advent of Independent Prescribing of ocular medications has opened up more opportunities and responsibilities in terms of treating some eye conditions. 

My main hope is that the public perception of the optometric profession is in keeping with these changes, and that they regard us as the first port of call when they experience an ocular problem. Obviously in some emergency situations a direct route to ophthalmology is the only answer, however patients with non-emergency conditions can be very well served by an Optometrist examination. We have the skills, experience and equipment to do this to a high level. In many cases this may negate a referral as they get appropriate treatment, and for those who do require referral to ophthalmology colleagues, an examination can add important and more complete information to the referral. 

It is certainly in the public’s best interest to consider contacting their Eye Care practice in the first instance if they have a non-emergency eye problem. Explaining the symptoms you notice will enable them to advise you on the best course of action, very often, now and in the future, this will be to attend your local Eye Care practice rather than you’re GP, Pharmacist or Eye Department. They will be able to guide you on any urgent steps you should take. 

I wonder if one way to enhance our public perception is to see changes in how the profession is portrayed through advertising. All too often the general public’s first contact with optometric companies is through TV, radio and newspaper ads promoting spectacles. Of course revenue from sales is vital for the existence of businesses, however it would be great if advertising and media interactions with the public also gave a more balanced account as to the role and responsibilities of optometrists as a vital health care provider.

As someone who works in the hospital setting dealing largely with glaucoma and cataract, I hear first-hand the esteem in which the patient often holds the referring Optometrist. They are often extremely grateful and impressed by how switched on and thorough the optometrist was. But all too often this maybe isn’t the side of our profession which gets heard the loudest.

The UK population is increasing, in particular our elderly population. These are the patients who need the clinical expertise of Optometrists most, in the detection of ageing eye conditions such as cataract, glaucoma and macular degeneration.  Recently the Royal College of Ophthalmologists described the ‘perfect storm’ of challenges facing hospital eye departments with increased potential to treat patients, lower than required rates of ophthalmology training and the increased patient population. Community optometry has a role to play in exercising high clinical standards – both in keeping referrals as complete and accurate as possible, but possibly also in treating certain conditions and reducing the burden on hospitals. The advent of Independent Prescribing I hope has a role to play in this. 

So the role of community Optometrists (and community Eye Care in general) continues to evolve – yes the provision of spectacles and contact lenses is vital in our role in maximising visual potential, but the high quality of examination, detection and treatment of ocular disease is something which will continue to develop our role and enhance our standing amongst other professions, and most importantly you - our patients.

Stanley Keys BSc(Hons) FCOptom DipGlauc Dip Tp(IP), an experienced hospital Optometrist based in Inverness. He is author of the Eye Safety Card.