In this column last month, which focused upon the recently published General Ophthalmic Services activity to March 2018, I briefly mentioned current workload, which appears to be decreasing per optometrist, in contrast to optometry student numbers. Specifically that there was likely to be yet more increases in the number of universities setting up optometry courses resulting in an increase in students who were going to be studying optometry.

I’m sure there will be those in the profession, already qualified, who view this likelihood with trepidation as they believe that a flood of optometrists in the marketplace will have the potential to decrease salaries. There may be limited reassurance in the recent Optician (September 28) survey of optometry salaries which suggests that despite numbers already increasing, salaries have not decreased – as yet.

It seems uncertain what effect this would have on the independent practitioner practice but employers on the other hand will welcome more optometrists entering the labour market giving them increased choice when recruiting and of course the potential for lower salaries. A further advantage for employers will be that optometrists may be keener to take up secure employee positions, rather than the slightly more uncertain locum option. There will of course always be a place for employees to use locums to fill in fluctuations of patient demand, holidays and illness, however it seems intuitively right that an employee will, on average, be more engaged in their practice and give a greater continuity of care than the locum. The independent practitioner will benefit from more choice of personnel.

Increasing student numbers also leads to the requirement of enough lecturers with experience of optometry practice, plus enough patients for the student to see while they are in training. Without these being put in place, students who come through to optical practice will be lacking in practical experience required and so put more pressure on pre-registration supervisors. Could it also mean that there will be lower academic entry requirements to optometry courses to fill places and the unwelcome knock on effect of less able students? If there is more to do with a student, post-university, to get them up to speed with practice life, then that may discourage pre-registration supervisors, at a time when we will require more, not less. While on the subject of supervisors, does the profession know if there will be enough in the future, to accommodate rising student numbers?

So there are pros and cons to increasing numbers, but despite that, is there going to be a point where there may just be too many optometrists? I worry that in the absence of any manpower plan for the optometry profession going forward, there may not be jobs for everyone in the future. Should this have an implication for those universities who are setting up the courses? Universities will be primarily concerned with filling courses as this is how they receive funds and at the moment there is reasonably full employment and attractive salaries post-graduation. This may not be the case going forward and while for other courses a degree is a passport for entering a variety of careers, I would be interested to know how a degree in optometry is regarded for a career in say finance or other aspects of business. Future students should take an attitude of ‘buyer beware’ and do their homework on their prospects.

In summary, there are many issues that are raised as a result of new universities entering the optometry market. No doubt some of these will have been addressed already and it would be good to see some joined up thinking being published under a manpower plan for optical practice, combined with looking at anticipated workload due to increasing elderly population and more clinical work being done in practice.

There may be a future employment issue with numbers coming through the universities and I for one would be delighted if this was not the case. My reassurance to those who worry about the effect on them of increasing numbers is that good people will always succeed in their chosen career as their abilities stand out. In optometry this means that they will have good clinical competencies, but primarily they will be good communicators. They will also be the people who look to the future and consider what they need to do to develop their skills to make themselves attractive to employers or if they have their own business they will look forward to provide the services members of the public want.