Many of my non-industry friends have, at one time or another, suggested or even assumed that the role of optometrist is a boring, repetitive job where I perform one eye test after another.

Up until five years ago, I didn’t put a lot of effort into disagreeing with them. Clinics often felt like something to endure, rather than enjoy and the seemingly endless ‘better with, without, or just the same’ conversations didn’t help. Groundhog days of over 20 tests in a busy daily clinic with fractious colleagues aggrieved after being told their conversion rates, average order value and audiology referrals weren’t up to scratch wasn’t what I thought I had spent four years studying for.

The stressful thing for me was working out how I would include everything I thought I should do to best serve the patient, while satisfying the commercial demands of the business owner. I didn’t think they were necessarily mutually exclusive, but some days there were numerous extras squeezed in and then additional ghost clinics booked too. Frankly, I thought they were taking the mick.

I qualified in 1992 (no I can’t believe it either) and quickly realised back then that while the University of Bradford had prepared me well in many ways, it had
not prepared me for the brave new de-regulated optical world. I’ve been a visiting clinician there for a few years now and (apologies friends and colleagues) I am still not sure they prepare students for the commercial pressures they face from day one of their high street careers. I responded to the fear that I had made a terrible career choice by resigning, about a year after getting registered and cycling to Africa.

I eventually returned and developed a different career, but always kept my eye in with locum work and a couple of part-time posts – the longest I went without doing a test was about two years. The thing is, I never fully walked away from optometry, and even though I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, I never really wanted to.

In the main, this was because I always felt that there must, or should, be an alternative to the aforementioned high street model, one I could get fulfilment from and one where I felt patients were better looked after. To some extent I blamed myself for not being OK to go along with what many were happy with and to enjoy the security, decent rewards, I felt disapproved of by optical peers. In summary, my family and I shared a feeling that maybe I should have played it safe.

So, what changed five years ago? Well, I became a business owner and I started doing optometry the way I had always wanted to and enjoying doing eye tests. I now book appointments at one-hour intervals, we don’t upsell and none of the staff know what our conversion rate is.

We are booked up weeks ahead and we are financially stable, with an income that is comfortable, and lots of customers feel like friends. It’s not a way of doing things that would work for everyone, but it’s alright by me and many an ex-colleague will tell you that me being at peace with it is not what they would have ever expected.

The point of submitting this piece, is that I am pretty sure that there will be other optometrists who can relate to elements of the story of my difficult relationship with optometry in England. I want to tell you that there are other paths and that it’s OK to want more, object to too short test times, pressures to sell extra and convert. Please feel free to drop me an email if you want to talk or hear about our approach or even join us or troll me on social media if you disagree with my outlook. Whatever you do remember you are a professional and that only you are accountable for what you do or don’t do.

  • Karl Hallam, optometrist, Sheffield