There are lots of special days during the year but today, Wednesday 23rd March, is World Optometry Day. A day to celebrate the global community of optometrists and all the eye care professionals that support the ophthalmic health and wellbeing of many millions of patients.

There are just over 33,000 optometrists in 123 countries worldwide according to a study by the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. That global figure includes those professionals who may only undertake refraction and a basic assessment of visual function, as well as the more enhanced role of an optometrist in the United Kingdom or the United States for example. It is more common across much of Europe for only an ophthalmologist, and not an optometrist, to assess the ocular health of a patient. 

It is generally agreed that optometry is a healthcare profession that is autonomous, educated, and regulated (licensed/registered). Optometrists are the primary healthcare practitioners of the eye and visual system. This includes refraction and dispensing spectacles, as well as the detection, diagnosis, and some management of disease in the eye, and the rehabilitation of conditions of the visual system. Across the world, the levels at which certain functions are conducted varies considerably; even in the UK there is significant variation.

There are over 16,000 UK-based optometrists practising mainly in the community. The primary role for most optometrists is to enhance sight, correcting refractive error to sharpen an out of focus image. Essential to so many of us, corrective lenses are a vital tool to enable normal functioning within society. It is a sad reality that refractive error still remains a significant cause of sight loss across the world. Often misunderstood, the skill of refraction is not simply to maximise acuity; it is to enable the eyes to function together. Comfortable functional vision also requires correctly dispensed spectacle lenses; a skill that should not be overlooked. 

One of the most important roles of the optometrist is the ability to identify disease, especially sight or life-threatening disease, at an early stage.  Understanding normal variation and being able to pick up early ocular change is very important. Sight-limiting conditions, like a developing cataract, require clear and careful patient support to appropriately refer in a timely manner; a well-informed patient can be helped to make an informed decision on the care that they require. 

Whilst all optometrists can prescribe medication at a basic level, the upskilling of many to become independent prescribers is further supporting patients to be treated conveniently and often closer to home. Reducing the burden on general practice and on the hospital eye service, optometrists are well placed to be a patient’s first port of call for any ocular problem – appropriately triaging and treating within the professional’s level of competence. 

Happy World Optometry Day to all my optometric colleagues, and to their teams in the UK and across the world, who are providing vital and supportive ophthalmic care to so many people. Today is also a reminder to everyone else to book an eye examination and to get their own eyes examined; a visit to your optometrist should not be delayed.

Janet Pooley

NHS Education for Scotland.

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