During my second year at university, I used a search engine called Webcrawler to check out a website selling books online. It was recommended to me by Professor Steve Parish, a great man who has inspired and shaped so many careers in our profession. He also let me swap a clinic group so I could watch Wales play Samoa in the Rugby World Cup that year – I’ll let you look up the result on a contemporary search engine but suffice to say I’d rather have been refining my ‘fan and block’.

The book I bought was the third edition of Clinical Ocular Pharmacology (still on my shelf with the fifth edition – a pre-reg made off with the fourth edition circa 2006) and the website was called Amazon. It was the first I’d heard of it. This was also the year I became aware of internet dispensing. There had long been so called ‘bucket shops’ and mail order spectacle purchases but this online element was new.

We all know the myriad of options available to consumers now and many of our products are commoditised online. We all agree that our profession needs to differentiate itself and provide added value based on trust, expertise and our services, or face ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as the number of online offerings increases from those who would offer services in the ‘grey’ of the Opticians Act, or even worse. Just look at the number of apps and programmes that purport to refract online. Might they see the £50k ‘maximum fine’ from the GOC as merely a cost of doing business? That is, of course, if the regulator could fine them at all.

A transformative era

As Optician’s editor Simon Jones said at the end of June: ‘We approach what could be the most transformative era that the world of optics has seen.’ We need to make sure that the transformation is a positive one for our patients.

We need to maintain high quality care and deliver wider services, helping to meet the needs of the population by offering care closer to home. In regions where we need to do more to convince eye health commissioners that we are a solution to the huge backlogs, let’s work out how to influence their decisions.

The question is how? There is clearly a role for the optical bodies and associations, all of whom have responded to the GOC consultation on the review of the Opticians Act. The recent publication of the AOP five-year strategic review is also an interesting read and it shows clear forward-thinking. But sector bodies can’t bring about the change needed on their own.

While we all have our own views on what needs to be done, there are two paths that I believe have no downsides and they are our collective responsibility:

  1. Self-development
  2. Promotion of the profession

‘If you build it, they will come.’ This famous quote from the 1989 film Field of Dreams has always stayed with me. Being ready for the future is more than half the battle and the self-development of registrants, with higher qualifications, will be a crucial part of it, as will practice owners, prominent registrants and educators that are getting involved in local representative groups, gaining skills in management, governance and leadership to inspire others. Many providers have also embraced learning from ophthalmologists as they provide CPD. Not only does this strategy improve understanding between disciplines, it serves as an opportunity to showcase the potential for optometry and creates advocates.

Advocates all around us

As a collective group of professionals, we see more than 20 million people for eye tests every year - that doesn’t include contact lens patients or those accessing extended/enhanced services. These are a wide cross-section of society; politicians, policy makers, allied professionals, commissioners and chief executives all in their ranks. We all share the responsibility for creating advocates by being able to explain the role that we play in the eye health of the nation and how much more we could do to help in the future. Others who access our services may not be quite as influential in health policy, yet are our lifeblood. They are equally as important and are the very people targeted by the kind of providers I mentioned earlier, who might not place the same emphasis on eye health as we do.

Ensuring that we educate each and every person about our role, the importance of our services and the vital nature of regular eye tests, can only help when they are faced with other choices, as they surely will be. This will also help to reach the estimated 14 million who don’t engage in regular tests and the one in 10 who have never had an eye test at all.

So, I leave you with these questions:

  • What more could you do to develop yourself and those around you?
  • What more could you do to educate and inform the public about the great things eye care professionals can do?
  • Paul Morris is director of professional advancement at Specsavers UK & Ireland.