The University of Western Australia’s (UWA) first post-graduate degree in optometry has officially launched, offering “world-leading research and education involving optometry and ophthalmology to create eye care practitioners of the future”.
The three-year postgraduate Doctor of Optometry Program, conceptualised in 2017 by Professor Garry Fitzpatrick, and approved by the Western Australia Senate in 2019, has been established in partnership with Lions Eye Institute (LEI) and Lions Outback Vision. Support from Specsavers, Luxottica, Essilor, Zeiss and BOC Ophthalmic Instruments has been integral to getting it off the ground. Professor Fitzpatrick is the Division of Optometry’s Foundation Head within UWA.
graduates who undertake the Program will remain in the state to work, and… a percentage will be employed by the Eye Hub or other outreach services
The Program commenced in March this year and its first cohort of 43 students, described by Prof Fitzpatrick as “an inspiring and articulate group”, have already completed their first semester.
Speaking at the Doctor of Optometry launch, Prof Fitzpatrick said graduates from the Program will:
- Overcome a projected 2030 shortfall of optometrists in Western Australia, particularly in rural and regional areas;
- Help meet the pressing need to close the gap in Indigenous eye health; and
- Lessen the social and economic impact of Australia’s growing ageing population and subsequent challenges of managing increasing ocular disease such as diabetic eye disease, age-related macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma.
UNIQUE RESEARCH AND PRACTICE OPPORTUNITIES
One of the most exciting aspects of the Program is the Doctor of Optometry’s unique relationships with LEI and Lions Outback Vision. These relationships will enable students to contribute to research projects with LEI and gain experience while supporting the efforts of eye health practitioners at the Eye Hub in Broome, run by Lions Outback Vision. Ultimately it is hoped that the graduates who undertake the Program will remain in the state to work, and that a percentage will be employed by the Eye Hub or other outreach services.
FIRST CHAIRS TO BE APPOINTED
Coinciding with the establishment of the new Program is UWA’s decision to appoint three Chairs: a Chair of Translational Optometry and Research, a Chair of Eyecare Big Data and a Chair of Discovery and Translational Sciences. The Chairs, whose positions have been financially supported by LEI, will co-locate and collaborate at the Institute, where they will oversee a research strategy focussed on the early detection, treatment and management of ocular disease, and the development of innovation in the delivery of eye care in order to reduce the preventable blindness and increase accessibility of eye health services.
“The combined impact of this substantial investment in academic and research leadership in vision sciences will place UWA and LEI at the forefront of vision research outcomes and translational research worldwide,” said Prof Fitzpatrick. “Western Australia will become a global leader in research and treatment of vision challenges through this collaboration that brings together ground-breaking scientific endeavour and highly respected medical researchers and health professionals. The commitment to high quality education, clinical experience and research at UWA, with support of our partners, will deliver eye care to more Australians in metro, remote and rural areas.”
Professor Bill Morgan, Managing Director of LEI, embraced the opportunities that will come through his Institute’s collaboration with the UWA Optometry Program.
“As ophthalmology researchers, all of us have researched in collaboration with optometric researchers… either overseas or interstate because there has been no optometry school in our state, so it’s great to have that resource on our home soil, and to build that research capacity,” he said.
Also speaking at the launch was Prof Amit Chakma, Vice Chancellor of UWA, who said the new Optometry course was a reminder of the University’s founding charter; “to serve the people, and to contribute to the prosperity and welfare of people in Western Australia, by serving our community through education, research, and in many instances by providing valuable service”.
He said the Doctor of Optometry Program was “designed based on our understanding of the needs of the people we serve… whether they’re disadvantaged, Aboriginal or regional communities… It will develop new collaborations and eye care pathways to improve the sight and well-being of all Australians and go to close the gap of eye health of our First Nations People.”
Jennifer Campbell, Chief Allied Health Officer of Western Australia Health, articulated those needs with compelling statistics.
She reported that the rate of blindness among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is three times higher than non-Indigenous Australians – there are 3,300 Indigenous people who are blind and 15,015 who suffer from low vision.
Indigenous Australians are 14 times more likely to have diabetes-related blindness and five times more likely to have refractive error blindness than non-Indigenous Australians. Locally, in Western Australia, there is a substantial gap between the eye health of those living in urban vs. rural and remote areas – with high rates of eye disease in the latter despite 94% of blindness being preventable or treatable.
Western Australia Health is guided by the Sustainable Health Review, which Ms Campbell said provides a blueprint for the future by articulating a shifting focus of priorities and emphasises the need for safe, responsive and sustainable health care.
The review indicates a shift towards more preventable care and new models of care driven by workforce changes.
“There is a clearly indicated community need for more qualified eye care practitioners, both primary care optometrists and ophthalmologists…The new Doctor of Optometry course enables Western Australians to study here and hopefully stay here,” she said.
Ms Campbell said the opening of the school presented “the start of a great new era for health” with opportunities in research and innovation, and opportunities for students within the school to apply for Government funding to undertake research projects.
“As the Sustainable Health Review says, we must all work together to ensure safe, sustainable and high quality care for our population,” she added.
Specsavers’ Director of Optometry Dr Ben Ashby attended the launch virtually, from lockdown in Melbourne. Focussing on the need to fill a current and projected increasing shortfall in the state’s supply of optometry professionals, he said the new school was “long overdue” and will ensure “local opportunities for local optometrists”.
As the largest employer of optometrists in Western Australia, he said at the time of the launch, Specsavers had more than 20 optometry vacancies in its WA network alone.
Congratulating UWA on opening the school he said, “Competition for graduates has never been so high – it’s a great time for optometrists to qualify with a ready supply of rewarding careers”.
The launch concluded with a presentation to the Doctor of Optometry’s partners and supporters.