Optometry Australia has expressed its disappointment and called on the Australian Government to reconsider funding systems for university places for optometry, following news of a new Doctor of Optometry degree, which will commence at The University of Western Australia (UWA) in 2021.
The UWA’s three-year postgraduate Doctor of Optometry brings the number of universities offering optometry courses in Australia to seven. In its first year it will offer 55 domestic and five international places to students who have successfully completed a Bachelor of Biomedical Science or equivalent degree and who meet any additional admission requirements.
The course will be led by Professor Garry Fitzpatrick, who was Western Australia’s (WA) representative on the Optometry Board of Australia for almost 10 years and a member of Optometry WA’s board. He has also been an independent practitioner and a Specsavers store partner.
UNDERSUPPLY OR MALDISTRIBUTION?
The announcement of the new degree has rekindled robust discussions about the number of optometrists required to meet the eye health needs of Australians.
Optometry Australia (OA) has long maintained that more optometry graduates are not necessary. While acknowledging the “potential benefits” Darrell Baker, OA National President, said “Workforce projections modelling undertaken by the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University in 2014 indicated that Australia was fast tracking toward an oversupply of optometrists if there wasn’t significant change. In recent years there has been a doubling of the number of university schools offering entry-level optometry courses along with growth in student numbers from established schools.
“Combined, these factors have pushed the replacement rate for optometrists above two – which means that there are twice as many optometrists entering the profession each year, than those that leave.
“Whilst there are some potential benefits to optometry in WA as a result of UWA’s new school, including a new and local focus on research and development, we believe it is not in the interests of students undertaking optometry courses, the public, Government or the existing optometric profession, to support growth in the optometry workforce beyond growth in service demand,” he said.
Despite these concerns being voiced by OA, Professor Rhonda Clifford, Head of the UWA’s School of Allied Health, maintains the new degree “will help address the undersupply of eye care professionals in WA, while helping with the distribution of practitioners in regional and remote parts of the State”.
Prof Clifford’s sentiment has been echoed by Specsavers, which has strongly supported the establishment of the course and believes it will be “a real boost for employers of optometrists in Australia and especially in WA, who are struggling to keep pace with patient demand”. Additionally Paul Bott, Executive Director and General Manager Optics at Specsavers, said the new course will mean that employers in Western Australia will no longer have to rely entirely on the eastern states’ graduate supply, “providing a balancing effect to the whole country and also to New Zealand”.
In 2018, Specsavers commissioned Deloitte Access Economics (DAE) to undertake a report which forecast a shortage of some 1,200 optometrists by 2037, predominantly due to an ageing population, a larger total population and increased corresponding demand for services.
Mr Bott said the anticipated expansion of optometry’s scope of practice, to directly support the work of other health professionals such as ophthalmologists and doctors, would likely result in an even greater shortfall.
“It is harder than ever before to recruit optometrists from a limited pool, even though that pool has grown over the past ten years. I remember the announcement of the new optometry course at Deakin in 2011 being met by dire warnings about the potential for unemployed graduates and lower salary packages, whereas in reality Deakin graduates are snapped up before they graduate and salaries have continued to rise in all parts of the country,” said Mr Bott.
“The same goes with all the other optometry schools. For example, the starting salary we now pay for a newly graduating optometrist is AU$85,000 plus super and, in regional areas, we also need to add a $10,000 to $20,000 signon bonus with a further $5,000 in relocation allowances. In metropolitan areas, the salary package is $80,000 plus superannuation; with a $10,000 to $15,000 sign-on bonus. It is our understanding that this is one of the highest starting salaries for any health-related field in Australia, including graduating doctors and dentists.
“Most recently we introduced 125 new graduates to our Australian and New Zealand stores – but we would have taken on a greater number if it were not for the strong competition for signatures. Beyond this, there continues to be strong competition in the employed market too – in our own stores we have more than 60 unfilled optometry vacancies with continuing growth likely to exacerbate the situation further,” he said.
Mr Bott said although UWA’s course will make a dent in the optometrist under supply, it still may not be enough to cope with increasing demand and scope of practice.
“It is incumbent on all of us in the ophthalmic world to proactively confront the challenge of access to eye care. Our concerns are that any shortage of optometrists could delay detection of sight threatening changes in people with conditions such as glaucoma and diabetes.
“We will take a watching brief on this and make sure that we chart the supply side and keep the broader industry abreast of likely impacts.”
TACKLING INDIGENOUS EYE HEALTH AND RESEARCH
As well as helping to overcome the perceived shortage of optometry professionals, proponents of the new degree have said other benefits will come from a focus on delivering eye health services to Indigenous communities and expanding collaborative research efforts.
Professor Fitzpatrick said the importance of culturally-aware eyecare professionals continues to grow, with the rate of blindness among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders three times higher than non-Indigenous Australians.
“UWA, (in) partnership with Lions Eye Institute and key industry partners, is taking the lead in tackling a growing problem by delivering an optometry course with a focus beyond best practice eye-care to develop socially and culturally-aware optometry leaders,” he said.
As part of their study, students will gain hands-on direct patient experience through extended clinical placements with industry partners including Lions Eye Institute and its Lions Outback Vision division, Specsavers, and Luxottica across metropolitan, regional and remote areas of Western Australia.
Professor Bill Morgan, Managing Director of Lions Eye Institute, said the Institute was committed to the development of the next generation of high-calibre optometrists, and would work with UWA on the research component of the course.
“We are very pleased to be partnering with UWA to bring the ophthalmology and optometry disciplines closer together in a way that will greatly benefit patients all over the state,” Professor Morgan said. “As a result, graduates will be well-positioned to tackle the growing eye-healthcare challenges affecting Australians.”
OPTOMETRY AUSTRALIA CAMPAIGNING GOVERNMENT
Optometry Australia has called on its members to support a campaign advocating for the Federal Government to reconsider its approach to funding university disciplines.
“Unfortunately changes to university funding systems introduced in 2012 mean that community need no longer needs to be centrally considered in the allocation of university places,” said Mr Baker. “We have been calling on the Commonwealth to re-consider this approach, and have recently outlined our concerns to the Federal Minister for Education, the Hon Dan Tehan in an effort to persuade him to consider oversupply when considering approaches for new university optometry courses,” said Mr Baker.
The campaign can be accessed at optometry.org.au.