Providing an outstanding development opportunity

Programme leader in optometry at the University of the West of England, Dr Rebekah Stevens, discusses the creation of a new course that will develop “future-facing clinicians” with OT 

Dr Rebekah Stevens

The University of the West of England (UWE) will become the 12th UK institution to offer an optometry degree in September.

A total of 30 students will embark on the new three-year BSc at the University of the West of England this September, which will include placements and the chance to practise skills at an on-campus clinic.

The course places a lot of emphasis on practical experience. What are the reasons for this and why is this important to current optometry undergraduates?

Historically, optometry programmes have had a large amount of vision science embedded within them. Whilst this is important, students often lack the practical experience to go into their pre-registration period confidently. Therefore, we have extended the academic timetable in all three years to maximise teaching time. This also ensures that students are undergoing practical experience as much as possible alongside a strong underpinning of theoretical knowledge to ensure that they are clinically capable.

We are also employing a spiral pedagogy within the entire programme to ensure that both theory and clinical skills are continually revisited and students do not forget skills they have learned.

"Students will be exposed to High Street practice, contact lens practice specialist practice and screening...having this variety, student will get a better understanding of how optometry services are delivered in primary, secondary and tertiary care"

How have partnerships with local practices and services been established and what do you expect these to achieve and provide to students?

We have consulted with local practices and hospital eye services to create the course, but also to become partners to provide placement opportunities for the students. We want students to obtain a variety of experiences in the profession – not just within the higher education system – in order to become well-rounded future-facing clinicians.

Students will be exposed to High Street practice, contact lens practice, specialist practice and screening, low vision services, and contact lens and spectacle lens laboratories. By having this variety, students will get a better understanding of how optometry services are delivered in primary, secondary and tertiary care.

When will the on-campus clinic be operational and how will it function?

The on-campus clinic will be fully functioning by the time the first cohort reaches the start of final year (September 2020). It will afford opportunities for students to provide general ophthalmic services under supervision from professionals and to work in a number of specialist clinics. 

The clinic will be open to the public, but also to the 27,000 students studying at UWE, Bristol and the academic and professional services staff. The clinic will be based within the Blackberry Centre – a large ex-NHS facility on the beautiful Glenside campus dedicated to health programmes. The clinic will benefit from great transport links and parking.

What will the new purpose-built facilities provide students with?

Students in their first and second year will utilise a purpose-built training facility built within the Grade 2 listed main building. This facility will have two large practical and group teaching spaces with audio and visual capture capabilities. The facility has research rooms with equipment such as optical coherence tomography, digital slit lamps, corneal topographers and retinal photography. Plus, there are training bays for students to hone their clinical skills in. The facility will also have an optics laboratory for all lab and dispensing practise, which will be fully capable of event capture to enhance the teaching and learning experience. 

Within the training environment, students will be practising all aspects of work they will eventually carry out in the patient clinic in their final year – even using an electronic patient record within this environment. Students will be able to use a purpose-built flat next to the optometry facility where occupational problems for low vision patients and domiciliary work can be simulated. They are able to collaborate with the other health professions in this space, such as occupational therapists, physician associates and paramedics. 

Multidisciplinary training is embedded with all three years, with students able to use shared skills spaces to simulate scenarios to foster relationships with a number of other professions. As mentioned above, in the final year, students will benefit from working within a large public patient clinic using state-of-the-art technology and will be taught and supervised by leaders in the field, including those from surrounding hospital eye services.

What key areas of study will the course focus on?

The course aims to produce well-rounded, clinically capable graduates. To that end, topics have been embedded within a variety of modules so that students see the 'big picture' and do not place subjects within mental categories. The course aims to show students the scope of practice that is available to them in the industry – be that specialist hospital work, starting or owning an optical business, community practice, domiciliary, health care policy and governance or cutting-edge research. In order to prepare them for the variety of these roles, clinical skills and communication skills have been in-built within a large number of modules, with an emphasis on problem-based learning to help develop clinical decision making.

How will industry topics be addressed on the course?

We have worked with a large number of external stakeholders when creating the programme to ensure that the course is fulfilling the needs of the industry. The requirement for social and clinical excellence is of paramount importance in an optometry graduate, with the confidence and resilience to tackle the changes the professional faces. These needs are being met not only by the design of the course, but also by the fantastic teaching staff who are also continuing to work within the industry – either within a hospital or community setting to ensure that as the needs of the industry change, we remain able to deliver those needs.

Will students leave the course with an independent prescribing qualification?

Not at the moment. We believe that to be a clinically excellent qualified independent prescriber currently requires students to have an amount of post-qualifying experience prior to starting the qualification, which is not possible in a UK BSc undergraduate programme. We have incorporated two pharmacology and therapeutics modules to give our students the fundamental theory about prescribing, and by offering the choice of two optional advanced modules in the final year, we are preparing our final year undergraduates to make advanced clinical decision-making skills. Therefore, should they go on to take the independent prescribing qualification, they will be well prepared.

How does the university intend to grow the course once it is able to?

The university facilities will have the capability to take 60 students from September 2019 and UWE has a proven track record in recruiting excellent students through their large dedicated recruitment and marketing departments. However, UWE also has a reputation in providing outstanding continuing professional development and further education, so we will be investigating how we may start and grow other courses to create an optometric centre of clinical excellence.