My week…

As English optometrists begin offering routine appointments, OT  catches up with staff about the highs and lows of returning to a new normal

Colourful glasses
Unsplash/Scott Van Daalen

This week has been one of milestones for many optical workers.

For some, it is the first time colleagues have seen each other outside of a computer screen in months and the first time that the morning commute is more extensive than walking from one room to another.

With the announcement from NHS England on Wednesday (17 June) that routine GOS work can recommence, it is also the first time that patients can access an extended range of optical services.

But the landscape of optical practices has also changed. From personal protective equipment to maintaining a two-metre distance, the practices that staff entered on Monday morning have notable differences to the familiar workplaces they left in March.

OT took the opportunity to talk with staff at six optical practices for their experiences during a week when staff are beginning to get a clearer picture of what the ‘new normal’ might look like following the seismic change of COVID-19.

Personal protective equipment is part of the new normal for Middlewich-based optometrist Cathryn Tripp.

Cathryn Tripp, C.A.T.S Optometrist

This week two staff have returned to work so I am no longer working alone. We are still not back to pre COVID-19 ways of working and I doubt we will be for a while. We have doubled the time for eye tests; only necessary tests are being carried out, which feels really alien to me and putting on PPE feels like just another part of my daily work routine. Patients don’t pop in for a chat, and when they do come in, they want to dash off.

The most challenging aspect has been realising how much I convey to patients through facial expression, hiding behind a mask makes that incredibly difficult and not something I had ever thought about before.

The best part of the week has been having my staff back. I realise how much input they have in my business and how much I rely on them.

Sheryl Doe, Allegro Optical

We’re much busier and we’ve welcomed many new clients and helped out some lovely people. February was our best month ever, and the last few weeks have still been busy but in a very different way.

Amy and Sheryl
Dispensing optician Sheryl Doe and optometrist Amy Ogden clean down surfaces at Allegro Optical this week.

The suspension of routine eye tests caused a large backlog and the reintroduction of private eye examinations on Friday has allowed us to call many clients back into practice. Fitting them in has proved a challenge. Trying to plan and maintain a socially distanced clinic with additional cleaning and cumbersome PPE has been a logistical nightmare and at times exhausting for all of our incredible team members.

Our first day providing routine private eye examinations turned out to be the busiest and best day of the year so far. We have received some wonderful feedback and it has been our pleasure to welcome old friends and to see them safe and well.

Sachin Patel, Safarian and Simon Opticians

London optometrist Sachin Patel

There has been a sense of relief over the past week. Pre-lockdown there was a feeling in the air of concern and then there was uncertainty and worry in March. Now the general feeling is more positive. Having opened the diary to private exams, the waiting list of patients were telephoned and booked in after a triage.

The best part of this week has been seeing familiar faces

London optometrist Sachin Patel

The most challenging part of the past week has been adapting the routine. Patients attend an independent practice for the longer test time and expertise, plus many are loyal and want to have a chat. Given the target of reduced contact time in the consulting room, I had to modify my normal way of working. Luckily, the investment in high-end equipment was on full show. Controlling footfall was not an issue as we had always spaced out longer slots, booked collections and had door signage in place.

The best part of this week has been seeing familiar faces. Whether it was a long-standing patient, a person walking along the High Street, or catching up with a neighbouring business owner.

David Burghardt, David Burghardt Vision Care

Three months after entering lockdown and it looks like we may soon be back seeing patients on a regular basis once again, albeit at a reduced capacity.

Lincoln optometrist David Burghardt

The greatest success of this astonishing period has been the way that practitioners have worked together, sharing information and learning from each other. Within the independent sector the Stronger Together confederation, supported by the Hakim Group and Optix, has been outstanding, with world-renowned speakers and an impressive discussion forum.

It has been challenging not only being unable to meet with family and friends but also with our fantastic teams and patients. Their wellbeing has been a concern.

Last week was a maelstrom. The beginning of the week we were only seeing patients with urgent or essential eye care needs, but the advice emanating from the professional bodies became somewhat confusing. By the end of the week the position was clearer and after having considered safety issues it’s back to more routine eye care.

Aqeel Mahmood, Gill Opticians and Alan Miller Optometrists (Hakim Group)

We have seen a shift in the public’s perception of how they go about their day-to-day life; they want to see that practices are taking all of the necessary precautions to protect their safety.

Greater Manchester optometrist Aqeel Mahmood

We have had a lot of positive comments that the community feel at ease as we are fully kitted out with the necessary PPE, including scrubs, which have been well received. Day-to-day life feels much more clinical however our patients have told us how this makes them feel much safer and reassured that we have taken this situation seriously.

The patient journey now includes at least two pre-appointment calls. We have prioritised patients’ appointments by an initial phone triage to identify their symptoms so urgent cases can be seen first. We then call all patients to highlight the steps we have put in place, such as PPE and hygiene measures, for their appointment with us.

It has been extremely rewarding to get face-to-face contact with the patients again, some of them have not had any conversations or seen anyone during lockdown. We are spending a lot longer with each patient and they are appreciating that extra level of service we are offering and giving them a more personalised service.

Dharshana Chauhan, Specsavers Bedford, St Neots and Dunstable

During lockdown in the COVID-19 pandemic, my four Specsavers practices in and near Bedford were only open to emergency and essential care. I saw years’ worth of pathology in 12 weeks, so even as an experienced optometrist I developed my optometry skills.

Bedford optometrist Dharshana Chauhan

Post COVID-19 lockdown, this last week, we have now seen private customers with symptoms or for essential care. We’ve found that as more people start to return to work, they have noticed their eyesight has deteriorated and say they are in need of new prescriptions. I found we are managing a lot of dry eye customers. As many people continue to work from home, the VDU use has increased considerably resulting in dry eye symptoms.

One of the challenging things during this time is explaining to customers the new in-store experience. Their safety comes first, from sanitizing all optical equipment, frames and chairs, to staff wearing PPE. It was challenging for the team at first to learn new patient engagements. However, the staff have adapted to the change well, and for those returning to work it has helped that we have been in communication with them socially throughout lockdown.

It’s been an emotional time in my career, but I am so glad that I am here providing optical care for the public in their time of need. People have told us that they are truly grateful for the services we have provided, from repairing broken glasses to referring life-threatening conditions. We will continue to provide professional optical care in the safest way to all.