Our changing world

A new report indicates the leaps and bounds that optical technology has made, as well as what the future might hold


An optical sector with its eyes wide open to the challenges of the future is the goal of the Foresight Project Report, an Optical Confederation- and College of Optometrists-commissioned publication released in March.

Author Jon Paxman told OT that the final publication, which was funded by the Central Optical Fund, holds insight from everyone from optometrists and dispensing opticians to contact lens manufacturers and online optical product retailers.

The 2020health team behind the report spent a year conducting research and performing 90 interviews with industry experts, he said.

Yet even during this time period, the speed of optical technology development kept Mr Paxman and his team on their toes. “During this time invention was happening … We kept on having to go back to technology,” he explained.

Even the most cutting-edge business models are likely to be shaken up between now and the year 2030, he said. “There are so many pockets of disruption.”

Ride the wave

Practice owners and practitioners risk being left behind if they do not keep themselves up to date with the forces of disruption to business as usual, Mr Paxman emphasised. “The optical community needs to be talking about it,” he said.

He said opticians may worry about spending needless time and money on “novelty” early-stage technology, from smart glasses and customised, 3D-printed frames to digital dispensing. But doing so could bring invaluable, if less obvious benefits, he highlighted.

“It’s a case of not being afraid to be an early adopter. It shows the customer that you are at the leading edge.”

One thing that struck Mr Paxman during his research was a lack of digital expertise among those supporting low vision patients.

“This is a great challenge to public wellbeing, given a future in which the prevalence of low vision is set to increase substantially due to our ageing population,” he commented.

He said highly variable access to optical services was another troubling finding of the report.

Mr Paxman also emphasised the need for practices to invest in specialised equipment, to demonstrate their commitment to and suitability for offering enhanced services.

Facing the fear

AOP clinical advisor, Trevor Warburton, told OT that a number of the biggest industry dangers were addressed in the report.

The disruption that would cause the most impact is the full deregulation of optics, he explained.

This depended both on the growing abilities of auto-refractive machinery, but also on the attitudes of the UK public. “There would have to be acceptance that a machine can do it as well as a human.”

He noted that, in several Asian countries, people considered machines more reliable than their human counterparts.

But full deregulation risks eye disease going undetected, Mr Warburton noted, adding: “If the government accepts that argument, it is less likely to deregulate.”

But even without deregulation, the industry-wide adoption of auto-refraction will mean a different workplace for tomorrow’s optometrists, he emphasised. “[Auto-refraction] may bring a further reduction in the amount of time patients need to spend with an optometrist, leading to a potentially increased throughput and a potentially reduced workforce.”

Unknown unknowns

AOP board member and optometrist Peter Hampson told OT that the issues highlighted in the report mean today’s optometry students would be on a very different career path from their predecessors.

He explained: “People are coming out of university having a desire to own their own practice.”

But with specialised, expensive equipment becoming a requirement, more and more debt-laden young optometrists will find owning an independent practice an unrealistic prospect, Mr Hampson said.

“How do they release the equity to buy into an expensive practice?” he questioned.

Mr Hampson envisioned that other developments, such as progressions in telehealth provision, would also impact different areas of the UK unequally. Rural areas that were technologically isolated, without broadband or good mobile data connections, could be left behind.

“How does it work for the more rural populations? The areas that will benefit most from a telehealth approach are the most likely to be left behind. People in cities have less to gain than people in rural locations,” he emphasised.

Mr Hampson said, on occasion, the Foresight Project Report championed the benefits of technological progress without addressing its inherent pitfalls. One example was the adoption of online appointment-booking systems without mention of the issues such as increased no-shows that came with the technology.

The commissioning bodies will use the 194-page report, launched by Minister of State for Community and Social Care, Alistair Burt, in the debate on refocusing optical education to better suit the changes ahead.

The Foresight Project chairman and local optical committee support unit executive chairman, Alan Tinger, concluded in the report’s foreword: “The Foresight Project Report is only the start. It can only move from being a document of interest to be of serious benefit if it is widely read and debated by all parts of the sector including educators, regulators and beyond with a view to the future.”

Read the full report on the AOP website.