Optometrists examine the eyes to find defects in vision, signs of injury, diseases and problems with general health. They make a diagnosis, give advice and, where necessary, prescribe and fit glasses or contact lenses. They work in a number of places, for example, in private (high street) practice, hospital eye departments, research and teaching posts.
Most optometrists work in independent (high street) practice, where they examine patients' eyes by running a series of tests.
Eye examinations usually take about 20-30 minutes. The optometrist usually starts by asking the patient why they have come in for an eye test - is this a routine check-up or has the patient been experiencing a problem? If the patient has come in for a specific reason, the optometrist will need to find out what the symptoms are and for how long the patient has had them.
Next, the optometrist asks questions to find out about the patient's general health, including whether they experience headaches, for example, when they read. They will ask about any illnesses the patient has, such as diabetes, and any eye conditions that might run in the patient's family.
At an early stage, optometrists find out how well the patient can read with each unaided eye. The optometrist examines the eye tissues from a variety of directions, using instruments that shine light into the patient's eye and magnify various features, such as the cornea and retina. They use an ophthalmoscope to look at the inside of the eye. Then, they make further tests, for example, to measure pressure within the eye (a test for glaucoma).
As well as problems specific to the eye, optometrists can spot some general health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, that can show symptoms in the eye.
They can also use instruments to find and examine any injury in the eye, for example, caused by a piece of grit or the impact of a squash ball.
If the patient has an illness or specific eye problem, such as a detached retina or cataract, the optometrist must refer them to their GP. Optometrists can also refer patients directly to a hospital eye department. In urgent situations, they can refer patients immediately to hospital accident and emergency departments.
At a later stage in the examination, the optometrist places combinations of lenses in front of one or both eyes, to check how well the eye focuses. This will also detect any errors or limitations in the range of vision and colour vision. If the optometrist diagnoses a vision problem, they will work out a prescription to correct it.
Generally, optometrists advise the people they see on how to look after their eyes and deal with specific problems.
Throughout the process of examining eyes, optometrists need to refer to and update the customer's or patient's records.
In some practices, especially smaller ones, the optometrist will go on to supply and fit spectacles and contact lenses, and test the accuracy of the lenses.
In prescribing work, the optometrist has to treat each patient as an individual. Each patient has particular and specific needs. For example, optometrists must assess the patient's eyes to make sure they are suitable for contact lenses.
In larger practices, a dispensing optician will help the optometrist. Experienced optometrists can qualify and specialise in prescribing contact lenses or in correcting the visual problems of young children.
In hospitals, optometrists usually diagnose and advise on the treatment of more serious eye conditions, often caused by accident or disease.
Certain problems require an operation and the optometrist will advise the eye doctor/surgeon (ophthalmologist) on this.
Hospital optometrists might specialise, for example, in diabetes monitoring and screening, glaucoma management, or monitoring patients before and after cataract operations.
Companies that make glasses or lenses employ optometrists to research into lens theory and design, optical instrumentation and optical design. Much of the work is laboratory-based and there is little contact with patients. This work also takes place in some universities and academic research centres.
Personal Qualities and Skills
- An interest and ability in science.
- Communication skills to explain things and give advice clearly.
- Tact, patience, understanding and the ability to reassure nervous patients.
- Good hand skills, for example, for fitting contact lenses into patients' eyes.
- The ability to take accurate notes.
- Teamwork skills, and also the ability to work on your own.
- Good judgement, observational skills and a logical, methodical approach to your work.
- Decision-making skills, for example, to decide when to refer a patient to a doctor.
Pay And Opportunities
Typical employers of optometrists
Employers include high street spectacle retailers (where some optometrists own franchise branches), the NHS (in hospitals) and lens manufacturers. Opportunities for optometrists occur in towns and cities throughout the UK.
There are opportunities for optometrists to become self-employed in independent general practice.
Entry routes and training
To become an optometrist, you need to complete a degree in optometry that is accredited by the General Optical Council (GOC). Entry requirements for degrees vary so it is important to check with individual universities.
You'll need to get at least a 2:2 in your optometry degree and achieve competency in key skills.
If you don't manage to achieve these, you can go into the optometry progression scheme. You'd retake the third year of the degree, getting learning support from your tutors. If you pass the progression scheme at 2:2 level, you can move on to the Scheme for Registration. You should contact universities that run accredited optometry degrees to find out whether they offer the scheme.
After the degree, you'd spend a year in the Scheme for Registration (SfR) working under the supervision of a registered and experienced optometrist. During SfR, you'll have work-based assessments and the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE).
After successfully completing SfR, you'll need to register with the GOC before you can practise.