The Job and What's Involved

Optometrists are health specialists who are trained to examine the eyes, advise on visual problems, and prescribe and fit spectacles or contact lenses. They used to be called ophthalmic opticians.

The eye examinations that an optometrist carries out usually last around 20 to 30 minutes. During that time the optometrist will:

  • Discuss with the patient why they are having their eyes examined.
  • Ask the patient about their general health and other information to help gauge what might affect their sight, such as occupation, computer use and hobbies.
  • Use a range of sophisticated equipment to examine the patient's eyes, both internally and externally - this is to assess the general health of the eyes and to identify any other underlying health problems.
  • Conduct other tests if necessary, such as for glaucoma or colour vision deficiency.
  • Conduct a series of tests to measure the type and extent of any problems with vision.
  • Check eye movements and co-ordination.
  • Prescribe spectacles or contact lenses at the end of the examination, or advise the patient that they do not need any correction to their vision.
  • Where necessary, refer a patient who they suspect may have eye disease or another medical problem to medical colleagues.

Some optometrists help patients to choose suitable frames, although in many cases this is done by a dispensing optician.

All optometrists are qualified to fit contact lenses and some may choose to specialise in this area.

All optometrists are trained to use some diagnostic drugs (eye drops) to enable them to examine the patient's eye, when appropriate. Optometrists are also trained to manage minor eye conditions and this may include using some therapeutic drugs (again in the form of eye drops). Some optometrists have done specific training to enable them to use or supply additional therapeutic drugs.

Some optometrists work either full or part time in a hospital environment, working alongside doctors and other health professionals. The range of tasks that the optometrist may do in a hospital is generally greater than that found in routine community practice.

Hours of work vary, but most full-time optometrists work 35 to 39 hours a week over five days, from Monday to Saturday. Some work longer hours, and they may work Sundays. Part-time and flexible working hours are possible.

Optometrists usually work in special rooms where they test patients' eyes. The rooms normally have no natural light and some of the eye examination is conducted in semi-darkness. The work involves some standing and bending, although much of the consultation is conducted with both the optometrist and patient sitting down.

Starting salaries may be between £16,500 and £24,000 a year. Higher salaries may be available to experienced staff with additional responsibilities. Those working in and around London receive additional allowances.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are around 10,500 registered optometrists practising in the UK, a number that has grown in recent years. The majority work in private practice, which includes large chains, small independents and franchises. Most others work in hospitals in the NHS. A few are employed in the armed forces, prison services and charities, while some teach in universities.

Vacancies for optometrists may be advertised in Optometry Today and Optician, as well as on the internet, including www.jobs.nhs.uk.

Education and Training

Prospective optometrists start by studying for an optometry degree course approved by the General Optical Council (GOC).

Entry to optometry degree courses usually requires at least three A levels/five H grades, including science-based subjects, such as biology, chemistry, physics or mathematics, plus five GCSE's/S-grades (A-C/1-3) including English, maths and physics or double award science.

Some universities may accept equivalent qualifications, either on their own or in combination with other qualifications. They include a relevant BTEC national or higher national award, an SQA higher national award, a Scottish Group Award and the International Baccalaureate.

Exact entry requirements vary between universities, so candidates must check carefully. Entry is competitive and conditional offers are generally set much higher than the minimum.

GOC-approved optometry degree courses are offered by:

- Anglia Ruskin University
- Aston University
- University of Bradford
- Cardiff University
- City University
- Glasgow Caledonian University
- University of Manchester
- University of Ulster.

Most courses last three years full time. Glasgow Caledonian University and The University of Manchester offer four-year courses. Manchester's course includes a pre-registration year.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

To practise as an optometrist in the UK, an individual must be registered with the GOC. To register, an individual must qualify by:

  • Gaining a degree in optometry at a university approved by the GOC.
  • Passing part one of the College of Optometrists' professional qualifying examination - those who gain a 2:2 degree or above and attain competence in certain technical skills are exempt from this requirement.
  • Doing one year's pre-registration training under the supervision of a registered optometrist, which will include work-based assessment.
  • Pass a final assessment.

Most people who complete optometry degrees are able to find pre-registration training places, especially if they are flexible and prepared to travel.

Optometrists must renew their registration with the GOC on an annual basis, and must continue to update their skills and knowledge throughout their careers. To maintain registration with the GOC the optometrist needs to gain at least 36 Continuing Education and Training (CET) credits over a three-year cycle, more if they are registered as having additional specialties, such as additional supply of therapeutic drugs. They also need to declare any criminal convictions to the GOC and the GOC will consider whether these will influence their registration.

The College of Optometrists offers higher qualifications for qualified optometrists. The highest qualification, the fellowship, is equivalent to an MSc.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An optometrist should:

  • Be able to understand and apply scientific principles and methods.
  • Be confident in handling mathematical information.
  • Be able to pay attention to detail.
  • Possess manual dexterity.
  • Keep up with scientific advances and learn to use new techniques and instruments.
  • Have the patience to perform repetitive tasks.
  • Be comfortable working in close proximity to patients.
  • Have strong interpersonal skills, with the ability to put anxious patients at ease.
  • Have good organisational and administrative skills.
  • Have strong business and management skills, if wanting to become self-employed.

Your Long Term Prospects

Some optometrists choose to specialise in one area of eye care. Optometrists in private practice may be able to progress to managerial roles within larger firms. Hospital optometrists follow a clearly defined career structure.

It is possible for optometrists to set up on their own, in partnership, or as a franchise. There are also opportunities to work abroad.

Get Further Information

Association of Optometrists (AOP),
2 Woodbridge Street, London EC1R 0DG
Tel: 020 7549 2000
Website: www.assoc-optometrists.org

The College of Optometrists,
41-42 Craven Street, London WC2N 5NG
Tel: 020 7839 6000
Website: www.college-optometrists.org

General Optical Council (GOC),
41 Harley Street, London W1G 8DJ
Tel: 020 7580 3898
Website: www.optical.org

Health of Wales Information Service
Website: www.wales.nhs.uk

NHS Careers (England)
Tel: 0845 606 0655
Website: www.nhscareers.nhs.uk

NHS Scotland Careers Information Service
Tel: 0845 601 4647
Website: www.infoscotland.com/nhs

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