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Eye-opening careers

Hong Kong urgently needs more optometrists

Most people want to ensure their glasses are fashionable and suit them well, but far fewer have regular check-ups to ensure the health of their eyes.

The need for yearly eye tests to detect a growing number of eye problems is fast increasing, explains Natalie Young, managing optometrist with Luxottica, the parent company of retail chain LensCrafters, which also offers eye check-ups.

Some conditions, such as cataract and macular degeneration, which used to be age-related and usually began around the age of 55, are now found in patients in their late 30s or early 40s. This is partly because we are exposed to greater levels of UV radiation. As a result, it is driving a need for trained registered optometrists.

Hong Kong, however, has a lot of catching up to do in primary eye care. There are about 1,000 optical shops in Hong Kong, but only about 2,000 practising optometrists. Only 800 are registered as Part 1 optometrists, meaning they graduated from a five-year university course with a BA. The rest are registered as Part 2 to 4, having taken some exams after learning the trade through practical experience.

“Only the Polytechnic University [PolyU] offers a degree course,” Young says. “Locally, only 30 to 40 optometrists graduate each year and they will not all end up in optical shops. Some work in hospitals and private practice. Demand is very high. In the past two years, we have hired a quarter of the graduates [from the PolyU course].”

LensCrafters offers a management stream that follows the path of store manager, senior store manager, regional and senior regional operations manager, and regional operations director. Others can enter the professional service stream, from registered optometrist to senior and then managing optometrist, and finally regional optometric practice manager.

“[Progress] is not according to the years served, but ability and passion for promoting primary eye care, how to ignite this spirit in other colleagues, and how to promote professional service,” Young says.

LensCrafters’ optometrists get further company training according to their needs, including management and leadership training. They also have the opportunity to be deployed in the mainland to help develop professional services there, take part in exchange programmes and share their experiences. 

With a brand vision of caring for the health of every customer’s eyes, LensCrafters offers primary care of the eye through a thorough, multi-step examination and aims to raise consciousness about the need for getting an eye check-up every year.

Check-ups are important because many eye diseases have no initial symptoms. While many cannot be cured, it is possible to slow the process if the condition is caught early.

“Fashion and looks are only part of our job,” Young says. “We are promoting the need for regular eye health checks. There is a lot of advanced equipment these days, and eye checks are more convenient and exact.”

LensCrafters recently opened a HK$2 million Vision Care Centre at its flagship store in Central. It boasts the newest and most sophisticated equipment, including the ultra-wide digital retinal scan which can take 3D images of 80 per cent of the retina.

The company employs about 200 eyewear consultants and optometrists. It has a network of 54 shops in Hong Kong and stations at least one optometrist in each shop. Optometrists conduct eye examinations, while eyewear consultants follow up on customers’ orders, according to the optometrists’ recommendations.

PolyU has also begun offering masters’ degrees in optometry, with the first batch of students graduating this month. Young is one of them, having taken the two-year part-time course while working full time and having a baby.

LensCrafters has been very helpful with continuing professional development, she says. “Our company has three master’s degree graduates. The company helped us with the duty roster and changing the time slots according to our schedule. They also offered great psychological support and showed concern about our workload.”

Learning the medical details is just one part of the job. Communication skills are equally important. Optometrists have to understand the patient’s lifestyle, including whether they smoke; find out if they have any health problems, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, which can affect eyesight; and understand all the details of their medical complaint.

After the check-up, the optometrist can give a professional diagnosis and recommendations. Here, communication skills are again very important. “We have quite a unique internal programme to teach how to use soft skills. It really helps our optometrists,” Young says.

She adds that working in various locations and environments, including the shop, the office and directly with clients, is very interesting and varied as she gets to put into practice what she learned at university.