The next step
OT hears how optical assistants and dispensing opticians have levelled up their careers
06 October 2023
Emily Chell started working in optics in 2012 as an optical assistant before qualifying as a dispensing optician in 2016.
In July this year, she graduated with her optometry degree from the University of Central Lancashire.
“If you have that passion for knowledge, you can go really far,” Chell shared with OT.
“There are plenty of opportunities out there for people who want to take their career further,” she said.
As an optical assistant, Chell was inspired to undertake further training after observing the way dispensing opticians within her practice interacted with patients – offering them optical solutions that provided a tangible benefit for their daily lives.
“When you have a quiet moment – which I know in practice doesn’t happen often – you can learn a lot just by observing and by listening to what other people are doing,” she shared.
Now that Chell is working as an optometrist, she is keen to share her knowledge with other members of the practice team.
“I think teaching is a good way of learning. Our optical assistants love it when I explain the OCT images that have been taken. When you are saying, ‘This is what that photo shows’ it builds up your communication skills,” she said.
Chell shared that team members should feel free to ask questions, regardless of their role in practice or level of experience.
“We all have different knowledge and we all have different skill sets,” she highlighted.
“In my practice, I work with six optometrists and I am the most newly qualified, but we all ask each other questions – even colleagues with decades of experience,” she said.
Chell highlighted that her perspective as a former optical assistant and dispensing optician has given her a greater appreciation for these roles in practice.
Asked for her tips for those looking to progress their career, Chell encouraged practitioners to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way.
“I think a lot of people are afraid about putting themselves out there – but you shouldn’t be. Our profession is an ever-changing field,” she said.
“You have to always be adapting and thinking what more you can do for your patients,” Chell emphasised.
If you have that passion for knowledge, you can go really far
The big picture
After qualifying as a dispensing optician, Mark Chatham has worked in a variety of roles within optics – including a contact lens optician, professional services consultant and continuing professional development provider.
Chatham now works as a practice buddy within Hakim Group, helping to onboard new practices and providing a link to head office services to support practices in achieving their goals.
When it comes to his career development tips, Chatham encourages practitioners to step back and complete a self-inventory – a concept originally described in the book What colour is your parachute?
“If you are going to make decisions about your future and what path you will take, it is really important that you take stock and understand yourself,” he said.
Practitioners should consider what their strengths and weaknesses are, what environments they enjoy working in and what motivates them.
“You want a job where you start doing a task and you don’t want to put it down – where the time flies by and before you have noticed it, it is the end of the day,” Chatham shared.
Chatham highlighted that there are many opportunities available to dispensing opticians looking to progress their career.
It is really important that you take stock and understand yourself
They may choose to become a practice manager, specialise in low vision, become a contact lens optician or work as a sales consultant for a manufacturer.
“Being a DO is a great qualification to have because you have so many pathways to go down,” he said.
Reflecting on the rewarding aspects of training as a contact lens optician, Chatham said he valued the opportunity to transfer the problem-solving skills he had developed as a dispensing optician into the consulting room.
He found that patients treated him differently when he was working in the consulting room compared to when he was on the dispensing floor.
“You elevate yourself clinically,” Chatham shared.
“Being able to give someone freedom from spectacles – as much as I love glasses – can transform people’s lives. That feels really good,” he said.
When asked what skillset might be useful as a practice manager, Chatham shared that this option could be considered by dispensing opticians who are highly organised and enjoy the commercial aspects of practice.
“If you are a leader of people and you enjoy responsibility, then practice management might be a pathway to go down,” he said.
Gaining a qualification in low vision may be a good option for practitioners who thrive in providing excellent patient care – and it might also open up opportunities for hospital work, Chatham shared.
For those dispensing opticians who enjoy travel and have strong people skills, a career working as a sales representative for a manufacturer may be considered.
“It is completely different to working in a practice where you are in the same location day-in, day-out. You might be in a different town each day of the week,” Chatham said.
“The large manufacturers have a consultative approach to selling products, so the role would be about relationship building. People buy things from people they trust,” Chatham added.
He shared that the barriers to career progression for dispensing opticians have diminished over the past decade.
More practices are willing to invest in the training of their staff – for example, by sponsoring dispensing opticians to complete further training.
“Employers are recognising the value of developing staff – it builds loyalty. The financial barriers are diminishing,” he said.
Dispensing optician and AOP Councillor, James Dawson, shared with OT that embracing new skills – such as management of dry eye and myopia – can help dispensing opticians to keep their knowledge current.
“Watch what manufacturers are developing, as this will show you what to concentrate on as a priority,” he recommended.
Dawson observed that the ability to stand out is key to career progression.
“Keeping your professional development on track is the best way to do that. Being a dispensing optician is no longer just about providing spectacles, it’s about being integral in the management of eye health and vision as a whole,” he said.
Within his own career, Dawson shared that pursuing a clinical interest in dry eye disease and age-related macular degeneration has led to professional opportunities as well as helping him to remain passionate about his career.
“I still love optics and get great satisfaction when I make a difference to someone’s experience,” he said.
Sharing his tips for other practice team members to continue learning, Dawson recommended setting time aside to explore areas of interest.
“Use your suppliers – they want you to know more,” he said.
Dawson added that events, such as 100% Optical, provide opportunities for education.
“Use your network of colleagues and friends and create your own learning experiences; we can often be some of the best resources,” he added.
Further learning online
Delivered in partnership with the AOP and Johnson & Johnson Vision, the Practice team training modules incorporate a pre-recorded lecture and multiple-choice questions.
Find out more online.