For many of us, getting our eyes checked at an eye care clinic or our prescription updated at an optical shop has become an annual event. However, it is only during these visits that we really appreciate the importance of the optometrist's work and realise the high quality of professional service they provide. From advice on the proper handling of contact lenses to the prevention and treatment of eye problems, they have a diverse role which now touches the lives of almost all members of the community.
Despite this, John Wong, vice president of the Hong Kong Society of Professional Optometrists (HKSPO), believes it is still necessary to promote greater public awareness and he has dedicated himself to achieving that. On graduating from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in 1996, he initially found work as an optometrist at an optical shop, but soon realised his ambitions lay in being a practitioner of all kings of eye care.
He explains that there are four classifications of registered optometrist, which are based on qualifications and work experience. Part I optometrists rank highest and are university-trained, with the PolyU offering the appropriate four-year full-time honours degree course. At present, there are around 500 in Hong Kong and they provide comprehensive eye and vision care, including refraction and dispensing, eye health management and rehabilitation of the visual system. They also conduct preventive examinations to detect early signs of glaucoma, retinal detachment, or visual problems related to diabetes and neurological illnesses.
"Our mission is to help people care for their vision and prevent health problems," says Mr Wong, who found that the move into this area was not altogether plain sailing. He had to immerse himself in polishing up his clinical practice of eye care, while continuing to work in optical shops for the next two years.
We can raise public awareness about the prevention of eye disease and the importance of eye care examinations
Now, as a registered optometrist and contact lens practitioner, he has been with The Primary Eyecare Centre since early 1999. Each day he conducts tests and regular checkups for clients and refers them to medical specialists if necessary. With the HKSPO, he promotes proper vision care by providing services at local secondary schools and elderly homes. "It is a great source of motivation if we can raise public awareness about the prevention of eye disease and the importance of eye care examinations," he says. "I will definitely continue these efforts as a way of making a contribution to society in Hong Kong."
According to Mr Wong, there are many opportunities for graduates in the field. For those who want to become clinical eye care practitioners, he says that patience and an analytical mind are essential. Finding the right diagnosis involves listening closely to clients and conducting careful examinations. "It takes time to learn these skills, but we are rewarded when we see an improvement," he explains. Since there are several areas of specialisation, he believes the long-term prospects for optometrists are good.
While almost all local graduates in optometry become registered as professionals, Mr Wong points out that many choose a career with optical shops which offer attractive financial benefits. As the services they provide are essentially part of a sales package, there is a common misconception that eye care is nothing more than a simple checkup and should be quick and free of charge. This can lead to eye problems being overlooked, if both optometrist and client focus on immediate concerns and not the underlying causes.
Mr Wong says that registered optometrists working in optical shops may have lesser professional qualifications. However, the system is being changed and the PolyU's single recognised course of study will lead to a single classification.
He is encouraged to note that recent graduates are leaning towards careers as practitioners of clinical eye care. This can be seen in the rising number of private optometry practices and their increasing number of clients. Those who take this route can attend refresher courses and seminars organised locally and can also learn from overseas practitioners about the very latest diagnostic skills.
As the profession evolves, it is hoped that even more optometrists will provide comprehensive services and be competent in all areas of eye care. Professionalism will be the keyword, says Mr Wong.
"The public is coming to understand the work of optometrists much better," he adds. "Personally, I hope those entering the profession make it their mission to improve their skills and attend to the well-being of clients. Their hard work will help optometry develop in Hong Kong, and that will ultimately benefit everyone."
According to Mr Wong, optometry is not yet well established in China. A small number of Hong Kong practitioners have sought to set up practices on the mainland, but they have not been successful and there are currently no known job opportunities for optometrists from Hong Kong. Most professionals in the sector are currently focusing on their practices in Hong Kong and only regard the chances of exploring the China market as a medium-term possibility.