If you’re considering a career in healthcare but don’t want to go into nursing, working as an optometrist could be for you. Read on to discover what the role involves, the training you’ll need, what you can expect to earn and the opportunities for career development.
What the role involves
Optometrists carry out detailed eye examinations to test patents’ vision and check for defects, abnormalities, injuries and ill health, and prescribe and fit spectacles or contact lenses as necessary. Trained to diagnose diseases of the eye, such as glaucoma and cataract, as well as general health conditions such as diabetes, they refer patients to medical practitioners if necessary.
The majority of optometrists work in private practice, employed by high street independent or chain stores. A smaller number are employed by the NHS, working in hospitals, or in academic settings doing research or teaching, and also in the optical manufacturing industry.
Optometrists offer advice and reassurance on vision-related matters and must be able to put nervous patients at ease. Those working on the high-street will also help people choose frames and lenses (and will have sales target to meet). They may also manage staff and liaise with sales representatives from vision care product suppliers.
How to become an optometrist
To work as an optometrist in the UK, you must be registered with the General Optical Council. You will need to take a three-year BSc (Hons) degree in optometry and pass a one-year training placement with a registered optometrist. If you want to work as a hospital optometrist, it helps to do your placement in a hospital.
Most degree courses ask for a minimum of five GCSEs (A-C) including English, maths and science, plus three A-levels (with at least two in science-based subjects). Requirements vary, so check with the college or university, as other qualifications may also be accepted.
Those already working as a dispensing optician may be able to retrain in optometry. While you will still need to complete the approved optometry degree and pre-registration year, some universities offer shortened programmes, allowing you to graduate with a degree in optometry in one year.
Once qualified and registered, you will need to undertake continuing education and training in order to renew your registration with the GOC each year.
How much you earn once qualified will depend on whether you work in private practice or the NHS. Those employed in the private sector can expect to earn £17,000 – £21,000 during their one-year pre-registration period. NHS trainees earn £19,027 (Band 4 on the Agenda for Change pay scale).
Once qualified, the average starting salary in private practice is around £25,000, depending on the size of the employer and location. With experience, optometrists can earn £60,000-plus a year. NHS optometrists start on £26,041 (Band 6); NHS specialist optometrists earn from £31,072 (Band 7), and consultant optometrists can earn up to £81,618 (Band 8).
As a qualified and registered optometrist you may choose to undertake further study, such as an MSc in optometry, or specialise in a particular area, such as paediatrics, low vision, contact lens practice or therapeutics (prescribing drugs for certain eye problems). The College of Optometrists accredits a number of professional qualifications at postgraduate level.
Those who go into practice management (with responsibility for business management as well as routine work doing eye tests) are able to command higher salaries. You could become a partner in a business, buy into an optometry practice (franchise or joint venture), or set up on your own.
If you have an interest in the medical side of things you could work in a hospital, and advance from basic optometrist to specialist, principal and then consultant optometrist. The NHS offers opportunities to specialise, for example you may prescribe optical aids for the partially sighted and offer pre- and post-operative care, or teach ophthalmic nurses and medical students.
Some optometrists develop their career by going into lecturing and research in the UK or overseas, such as, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, where the structure of optometric practice is similar.
Most optometrists work for large corporate stores, such as Boots Opticians, Specsavers and Vision Express, though there are jobs available at smaller regional chains too. Companies who offer laser refractive surgery also employ optometrists, to offer pre-operative consultation and provide post-surgical care and advice.
Most jobs in the private sector are advertised in the local and national press, specialist sites such as Optometry Today and Optician, and on the company’s own website. NHS jobs can be found on the NHS Jobs website.
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