“There's never a boring day”
Specsavers Haverfordwest director, Andy Britton, on how an interest in clinical optometry has helped him achieve his goals
I've always been really short-sighted.
I had an eye operation aged three or four, and I've worn glasses for as long as I can remember. I had the black NHS ones; my brother had the brown, and my sister had the pink. We're a family of short-sighted people. So, I've always been an end user of optometry services. I studied maths, physics and chemistry at sixth form because I thought I'd probably do something science-y. I went to a careers fair in Hereford, and there was a sign that said ‘optometrists.’ I'd been going to opticians for years, but I hadn't a clue what an optometrist was. So, I wandered over and had a word with a gentleman, who turned out to be Mr Bishop, of Bishop, Bishop & Rumney. I went to visit the practice, and thought, "Oh, this sounds right up my street – a healthy dose of medicine, science and talking to people." So, I headed off in the summer of 1993 to Aston University, and embarked upon my degree in optometry. Dr Ian Beasley (AOP head of education and OT clinical editor) and Lizzie Yeowart (optometrist, blogger and OT contributor) were both in my year.
I did my pre reg with the now extinct Dollond and Aitchison.
I've always had an interest in clinical optometry, but the thing that really took me on the clinical path was spending just under two years working as a clinical tutor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. I taught the labs and was involved in developing courses. I had the opportunity to play with some of the interesting toys and do work at the clinical end of the spectrum.
When I came back to the UK, at the end of 1999, I worked at an independent practice in Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan.
The practice was very clinically focused. It was the practice that launched what's become known as the Wales Eye Care Service, so the original Primary Eyecare Acute Referral Scheme (PEARS) practice. I was the second optometrist in the UK to be PEARS-accredited, as I was involved in setting that up as an employee.
I also worked at Cardiff University as a final year tutor.
When you're teaching, it really makes you learn. If I don't know the answer to something, I'll go look it up. You don't rely on your own knowledge. You've got to make sure that you can back up what you say; you don't just do it because that's what you think somebody might have said 10 or 20 years ago.
When you're teaching, it really makes you learn. If I don't know the answer to something, I'll go look it up. You don't rely on your own knowledge. You've got to make sure that you can back up what you say
I needed a change and ended up working as an optometrist in Asda.
It had very limited equipment, but I tried to bring in the clinical slant. The exposure to the commercial side started nudging me towards a more business-orientated head. Up until then I'd been very blinkered: it was clinical, clinical, clinical. As long as I was doing the clinical thing, how the business made money wasn't a concern to me.
I got involved in the corporate structure at Asda. I was involved in its professional development team, writing chapters for its standard operating procedures for optometry. It had a nascent pre-registration programme back in early 2003 or 2004. I was involved in writing coursework and helping examine for that.
The business side of things isn't something that is taught.
I think there could probably be some mileage within the Education Strategic Review. You could argue that optometrists should be having a lot more business training. Even if you don't want to run a business, you've got to be able pay your staff; you've got to be able to pay for the premises.
Being involved in the management, the training and the business got me thinking more about Specsavers. I worked in a successful practice in the Welsh Valleys and started taking all the bits in that I needed to become a director of the business.
Then I got a call out of the blue, asking if I'd be interested in a practice west of Swansea.
At the time, I was on holiday less than 10 miles away from the practice that was being offered. I love the area. I love the surfing, the kayaking, all the watersports. So, I had the opportunity to move to beautiful Pembrokeshire, where I have been ever since. I've been a director here for 14 years.
I had a mild touch of cancer, back in 2009.
I can still remember having a phone call with Paul Morris (now director of professional advancement at Specsavers) as I was recovering, asking if I was interested in doing something around training. We set up a small company, to deliver training to hundreds of Specsavers pre-regs every year. I did it for 10 years.
In terms of keeping me sharp, if I'm having to stand up in front of up to 100 students and deliver a six-hour lecture, which covers any aspect of pathology, I've got to be able to answer questions and justify things.
I'm proud that within my practices we've always engaged with the enhanced services.
We can do so much in the Haverfordwest practice, and the services we're providing are not dependent on me selling a pair of glasses at the end of it. That side of the business is good. During the initial lockdown, in the whole of Pembrokeshire there were three practices that stayed open. Two were Specsavers, but I was the only practice that had access to independent prescribing (IP). I could write prescriptions for anything: iritis, infections, corneal problems, ulcers. In the first lockdown we saw 1000 patients within an IP-type service, and we hardly needed to send anybody to hospital. We are really proud of that.
As well as working in the practice, I have spent the last five years, in one form or another, working alongside colleagues in hospital, initially as part of a ground-breaking wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) pilot. We started seeing wet AMD patients who hadn't needed injections for a while. The mission was to decide whether they needed to resume injections or whether they were what we call “dry.”
I'd nudged at the hospital years ago, to get my IP experience, but I couldn't make it work.
I went back to it in 2016, when the health board was funding places for optometrists to take the course. Again, it was a battle to get the hospital placement. But I managed, and I spent most of my placement working in the glaucoma clinics in my local hospital in Withybush, which was really interesting.
I passed the IP exams in 2019. Because I was working in the glaucoma clinics, I started my higher certificate in glaucoma. To get the breadth of experience I needed, I applied for roles at the Singleton Eye Department. Up until the start of COVID-19, I was doing a clinic every other weekend in Swansea, working alongside a really top-notch glaucoma surgeon. During COVID-19, that experience has enabled me to work with IP and my contact at the local eye department, a consultant ophthalmologist, who we've had on speed dial. I've been in a position to have the knowledge, experience and qualifications to help effectively manage these not very well controlled glaucoma cases, and nurse them until they're able to be seen in the hospital.
I've been in a position to have the knowledge, experience and qualification effectively to help manage these not very well controlled glaucoma cases, and nurse them until they're able to be seen in the hospital
I'm really proud of my fellowship from the College of Optometrists.
I've taken lots of qualifications, but they are exams that you can go and pass. It’s the breadth of what you have to show, to get a fellowship. There are six categories that you can apply to. I went for four of them. It was something I'd been meaning to do for years, and it was just finding time to go through all the things that you think you've done in your professional life. I was quite proud of what I've achieved.
I do quite a bit of work with the national bodies.
I sit on Optometry Wales. I've sat on Local Optical Committees (LOCs), wherever I've been practising. In 2020, I took up a place on the Welsh Optometric Committee, which reports directly to the health minister in Wales. It's being able to make a difference in your local community, and looking after your local patients. But it's also being able to influence policy at a national level. Part of my fellowship application was my work within Specsavers. I wanted to make changes to make my room feel better, so I've been involved in projects like that – to change the ergonomics of test rooms. I've been involved in IT projects that have helped deliver better solutions. People come to me, and I think I've got a good reputation within the business. I'm not your normal optometrist. But also, I care deeply about what I do. I turn up to work every day, and I still love the job. I still love doing what I do. There's never a boring day.