Career Insight: Optometrist
In a nutshell, what do you do?
Check that people’s eyes are focusing and working well together, and if not, prescribe glasses, contact lenses, or magnifying devices. Check the eyes for disease, and where necessary, manage or monitor eye conditions, referring to an ophthalmologist for treatment or surgery where necessary.
Why did you decide to become an Optometrist?
So many reasons!! Here’s a list:
At high school my preferred subjects were maths and science, and I knew that I needed to interact with people. Therefore something in the health industry was appealing.
During work experience, I found out first-hand that I faint at the sight of blood. This was something that I wasn’t sure I would be able to overcome, so I ruled out a number of professions such as paramedics, medicine and nursing because of this.
I didn’t want to have to have too much physical contact with people, so this ruled out physiotherapy and podiatry.
I had my parents and my own expectations that I would attend university after finishing high school.
I wanted to go into a profession with an above average earning potential.
My older sister was an optometrist, and she had wanted to do this as a profession from a young age. I therefore had the perception that optometry was a one of the best professions around.
What path did you take into it?
Direct entry from high school.
What, in your opinion, is the best bit of being an Optometrist?
There are two things that I like the most about optometry:
- The ‘detective work’ – people will come in with a symptom such as a sore eye or blurred vision and I get to ‘play detective’ by examining their eyes to find out what the cause is. Sometimes there is the opportunity to save sight or a life!
- Interaction with people – people are generally quite happy to come along to the optometrist, and are generally not in pain or feeling sick.
Every job has its downsides. What do you think are the worst bits?
The dynamics of the industry can be quite varied. Every practice is a business, and therefore needs to be financially viable. There is a mixture of taking care of the health of people’s eyes and retailing (selling glasses and contact lenses) that occurs in an optometry practice.
Some practices place too much emphasis on the retailing side of optometry and put pressure on optometrists to do more eye tests in less time so that a higher volume of glasses can be sold – often it is the health of the patient’s eyes that is at risk of being compromised.
Is it what you expected when you first started out – and what’s different?
During my time at uni, I did some extra-curricular reading of books such as “How to win friends and influence people” as I knew that communication would be a significant part of being a health practitioner. However, I didn’t realize the spectrum of people’s emotions that I would be dealing with during an eye test.
To give extreme examples, some people will be highly emotional about a minor eye problem, and others will be very blasé about something very serious. You have to learn to adjust your approach to each individual so that they are able to have the best possible care of their eye condition.
I also wasn’t prepared for how little people know about their eyes, and about health in general. When giving advice, you could tell most people just about anything and they would believe you. It took me a while to get used to the confidence that people have in health care practitioners.
What do the public least understand – or mistake – about what you do?
People aren’t always aware that as well as checking how the eyes focus, we are actively looking for eye diseases. Around 40% of eye diseases that are present and found during an eye test are asymptomatic – that is, the patient has no symptoms, and therefore has no idea that there is a problem.
What kind of people tend to do well?
People who have the ability to control their emotions and can maintain professionalism – I have had to show up to practice optometry on days when I was tired, in the middle of moving house, about to go on holiday, had a death in the family… and the list goes on.
You will have patients who don’t gel with you, give you a hard time because they are grumpy, have different views on life to you, will run late (and mess up your schedule for the day)….. and the list goes on….
You need to be able to manage yourself, and still need to bring your professionalism with you no matter what is happening inside or outside the practice.
People who genuinely care for others – you have to have something within you that makes you want to give the best possible care to your patients regardless of what else is happening.
People with attention to detail – there are lots of factors that you need to take into consideration when prescribing glasses and contact lenses for people, and so you need to like working with nitty-gritty measurements/details to get it right. If you don’t get it right the first time, people will keep coming back until you do! It is also easy to miss subtle signs of eye disease if you are not on your game, so you need to be always listening for a patient’s symptoms and actively looking for signs of eye disease.
People who can talk to anyone – during my career, I have had patients who are alcoholics, spendaholics, well known media/sporting personalities, have mental illness, are Bishops in the Catholic Church, workaholics, cancer survivors…. just to name a few. You have to be able to listen and talk to people from a wide range of backgrounds.
Finally, any advice you’d offer to people looking to get into this line of work?
You definitely need to be good at maths and science to get through the early years of the university course. However, it is generally the students who have or develop an ‘X factor’ who go onto have the best careers. This ‘X factor’ is generally driven by your interests – it might be specializing in contact lenses or children’s vision, or developing excellent people skills that will keep people loyal to the practice where you work.