Rebuilding community as practices get back to work

Practices in England are opening for routine appointments, but it’ll take time for our communities to get back to normal

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Getty/Ponomariova_Maria

This week saw optometrists in England receive confirmation that they can once again open for routine practice, after months of only being able to provide urgent and essential care.

As practice owners and staff optometrists prepare to return to regular practice – albeit with enhanced infection control measures, increased personal protective equipment PPE and social distancing in place – many will be looking forward to catching up with colleagues who they haven’t seen in person in weeks, or even months.

Cathryn Tripp, owner of CATS Optometrist in Cheshire, has welcomed her two staff members back after time spent working alone: “The best part of the week has been having my staff back,” she told OT. “I realise how much input they have in my business and how much I rely on them.”

She is missing the feeling of community that would usually be provided by patients, however: “Patients don’t pop in for a chat, and when they do come in, they want to dash off,” she shared.

“The most challenging aspect has been realising how much I convey to patients through facial expressions. Hiding behind a mask makes that incredibly difficult, and not something I had ever thought about before.”

Regaining the sense of community that we’ve been cut off from in recent months while retaining social distancing is proving challenging for charities, too. The cancellation of events and fundraising campaigns has had a negative effect on charities across all sectors, halting their cashflow and placing them in a precarious financial position. Many are struggling to see a way forward, even as lockdown restrictions ease.

Vision Aid Overseas, the only organisation that focuses on correcting refractive error in developing countries, has been forced to cancel fundraising initiatives, postpone volunteer assignments and new programme grants, and delay partnerships.

The charity is now looking for cash donations or pledges of up to £152,000, in order to continue its core work and existing programmes. Vision Aid Overseas’ current situation should remind us, as our local communities work to regain some normality, that the social effects of the lockdown have caused problems on an international scale.

Back in the UK we are currently part-way through Loneliness Awareness Week, and a Specsavers study has highlighted that those with visual impairments are at an increased risk of experiencing social isolation when compared to those without. Their study reveals that 51% of those who say they have poor vision have been feeling lonely some or all of the time during the lockdown, compared with 38% of people who say their vision is good.

It’s clear that, despite routine practice resuming and High Streets gradually opening up once again, we’ve got a long way to go before our local communities are restored to the way they were pre-lockdown.

Sam Ward, director of services and deputy CEO of the Royal Voluntary Service, warns that things are unlikely to go back to normal right away: “Even as lockdown eases, social isolation is likely to continue for many, especially for older or vulnerable people who may have been shielding or feel apprehensive about leaving their homes,” she said.

“Having hearing difficulties or vision loss can make older and vulnerable people feel particularly isolated; phone and video calls can pose additional challenges as they make it difficult to hear properly or to lip-read.”

She advises paying extra attention to keeping in touch with partially sighted relatives and patients as the first step, and relays a positive message going forward: “While it’s worrying to see so many people experiencing social isolation, in highlighting the issue we can work together to tackle it.” 

OT asks... When do you expect to return to routine practice?

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