Satvinder is enjoying a well-deserved break and I’m delighted he’s asked me to share a view from the high street in Scotland as restrictions ease and we seek to reconnect with one another. As I reflect on the past two years, the world of optometry is very different in some ways and yet unchanged in others.

We have always taken infection control seriously. Hand-washing, antibacterial gel and cleaning of reusable equipment is a routine procedure for us. However, triaging patients remotely, wearing PPE, and having colleagues take lateral flow tests, have been different and are likely to be staying with us for the foreseeable future.

In the 14 health boards throughout Scotland, shared care schemes developed quickly to meet local patient need and ensure communities were not penalised as a result of restrictions. Many of these are continuing, giving optometrists a great opportunity to further embed our role as frontline primary care providers. This is so important as we seek to reconnect with our patients. We are all working hard to get waiting times down by creating as much access as possible for everyone in our communities. We all want to deliver the service our communities deserve, and we want to care for those most in need.

Perhaps this is at the root of why some clinicians are struggling with burn out and we are seeing engagement challenges within our profession, like many other healthcare professions. I think we need to face this challenge by providing as much support as possible. This means listening authentically to our teams, making sure the support is bespoke and not a one-size-fits-all. I am part of a new clinical support team, which focuses on reconnecting with colleagues. Connection with each other has been compromised due to the pandemic and it’s time to bring teams together again physically. Of course, coronavirus is still with us, so some precautions remain. Even so, this support matters and makes a difference.

I know this from personal experience. I changed jobs and had my first baby during lockdown. My family has been a tremendous source of support and making sure I have colleagues who understand my situation has been vital. I have been an optometrist for 12 years, working in varied clinical and management roles throughout that time. I firmly believe there is a place for women coming back to work in our sector, though I know it can be challenging. Having warm, people-focused support really helps boost wellbeing and confidence.

My job must align with my values, and I feel that authentic connection with another is the quality that drives good clinical care and ultimately good business. I grasped the opportunity to take a newly created role focused on supporting the profession at a critical time. There is a real opportunity for growth as we have increased our scope of practice in many ways. Many clinicians are excited by this prospect and have thrived, while others, both patients and clinicians, are struggling. We have all experienced something unprecedented and everyone reacts in different ways. I have the scope within my role to meet people where they are and to tailor support to meet their needs in a genuine way.

As we live with the impact of the pandemic, we must not brush the enormous challenges clinicians have faced under the carpet, nor should we ignore the continuing challenges we face. At the same time there are opportunities for positive change: including technological advancements and their usage in our clinical practice; better access for patients to ophthalmic care in our communities; our profession is elevated among our primary care peers such as pharmacy, dentistry and GPs.

Our careers matter so it’s also time to look at our professional plans. I provide support at practice level, supporting directors to establish regular in-person optometrist meetings and peer review sessions. I strongly encourage reinstatement of face-to-face sessions where possible to strengthen team connections. We have our spring season of mini professional advancement conferences, held in six locations across the UK. These provide opportunities for our clinical colleagues to reconnect in-person and professionally advance. We are relational beings and being part of something bigger than our four walls is important for industry development, professional advancement and overall wellbeing.

  • Maria McAllister is an optometrist and divisional clinical engagement manager for Scotland and the North at Specsavers.