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“There is a slow realisation among politicians and policymakers of the vital importance of eye health”

AOP chief executive, Adam Sampson, on the importance of focusing on the dual challenges of the here and now with those slowly emerging over the next decade and beyond

Birds eye view of the Houses of Parliament in London
Pexels/Dominika Gregušová

January? I hate it.

I am never particularly good in the dark, cold winter months. But when you are running an organisation with a January to December financial and planning year, it is not particularly helpful when the bleakness of the post-Christmas period coincides with the need to provide a visionary and upbeat strategy to tackle the challenges and opportunities of the year to come. There are some moments when it is OK for a CEO to pull the covers back over their head and stay in bed, but sadly, this is not one of them.

This year in particular is challenging because the risks and opportunities are elevated. On the downside, as well as the grinding economic issues that every High Street optometrist has been fighting to manage over the past few years, there is the increasing pressure of ever-growing delays to treatment in the ophthalmology waiting list; currently totalling 619,000 with 17,000 who have been waiting for more than a year.

On the upside, there is a slow realisation among politicians and policymakers of the vital importance of eye health, symbolised by a speech this week by the Shadow Health Minister, Karin Smyth, which included (partly at our behest) an explicit call for optometrists to be used more to deal with the backlog of care.

Looming behind all of this is also the slow intrusion of technology into the business of optometry, ranging from the slow growth of online sales to the increasing role of artificial intelligence for the diagnosis and management of eye health.

Internally too, we have been experiencing challenges and opportunities. Continuing on the theme of technology, we will be investing further in improving our IT systems, making use of the latest developments, such as online livechat functionality and enhanced data management, to ensure that what members receive is more closely tailored to where they are in their professional careers.

Given the increasing financial pressures on many of our members, we will keep on looking for ways to limit the impact of a high-inflation economy on our fees, be that by looking for efficiencies or engaging in long-term policy development in order to cut the cost of clinical negligence insurance.

Much of that, of course, could have been said this time last year and, give or take COVID-19, the year before. What we have to be careful of is that, in concentrating on meeting the challenges that we are likely to be facing in the next 12 months, we do not lose sight of the challenges that will arise, slowly and stealthily, over the next 12 years. For example, we want to engage with parties from across the political spectrum about what will be in their manifestos for the election campaign which, whatever else, must begin during 2024.

However, talking to politicians at election time is very different from talking to them when they are in government. In government, your key asks are largely short-term: changes that can and must happen over the next year or two. At elections, you have to focus not on the immediate, tactical policies, but on the longer-term, strategic ones. It is about the sorts of changes that are not merely for the here and now, but are transformational in their intent. We need to be able to articulate not merely what optometry can contribute to patient care and wider society now, but paint a compelling vision about our place in the healthcare system in the next decade. Yes, we want better IT connectivity and the effective rollout of the new enhanced services pathway in the next two years, but what do we want in 2030? Or 2040?

This is not easy. When I worked at Shelter, we once did an exercise where we were tasked with deciding what we would do if someone gave us an extra £1 million. That was pretty simple, as was the debate about how we might spend an extra £10 million. Yet when we were asked how we would spend an extra £100 million, it suddenly got tricky.

Fortunately, while over the past two or three years at the AOP we have been busy pushing our shorter-term asks, we have at the same time been working on our longer-term vision. And while there is broad sector consensus on the immediate, there is perhaps less commonality on the longer-term asks. Add that to the list of things to work on this year…