What I have learned

“I wanted to do more to help”

From gaining confidence in new technology, to learning new skills as part of NHS Test and Trace, three optometrists reflect on what they have learned through the pandemic

animation of health professionals
Getty/Katerina Sisperova

I have learned… to operate remotely


Alistair Duff, IP optometrist and clinical director at Urquhart Opticians: We were lucky enough that the Scottish NHS health boards pushed for the use of Attend Anywhere software to allow optometrists to speak to patients via laptop, iPad, and smartphones. This software was originally developed for the Australian outback and had been used in the remote highlands of Scotland before lockdown.

The interface is very simple for the patient to use. The patient logs in via a link sent by email or text message and enters a secure waiting room. Once logged on, I found I conducted the examination as I would in the test room. History and symptoms are more important than ever as you don’t have access to the trusty slit lamp over video, although, cameras on up-to-date devices are very good so small details of the eye can be noticed.

Anterior eye issues were the mainstay of what I used Attend Anywhere to deal with – sub conjunctival haemorrhages, lid lesions and I even used it to view a folded contact lens. The odd consultation had to be escalated to the emergency triage centre during lockdown, where I was just not comfortable with the patient’s symptoms. Pharmacies also played their part as we could email them to get drops from an approved list that patients could pick up. This meant the only contact they had was either from the pharmacy delivering, or through attending the pharmacy to pick up their NHS prescription.

What I really am grateful for is that in this interim period where the virus is still out there, we can continue to provide these remote services to reduce footfall in practice and contact points for patients. This also saves time on cleaning a whole exam room just to view a sub conjunctival haemorrhage.

I believe there are also plans to use the concept in shared care such as glaucoma and macular management as the screen share element lets you share documents remotely with consultants.

I have learned… to engage patients with social media


Nicola Cooper-Heenan, optometrist and owner of Cooper & Barr Opticians in Thirsk: We did share some social media posts before COVID-19 but these were delegated to the more creative members of staff and so I didn’t have much involvement in them. I had always felt it took up a lot of time for little benefit.

During the initial lockdown, with the majority of my staff furloughed, it fell to me to update it. When it came to re-opening, I made some video posts as I had heard that they have better engagement and it seemed an easier way to explain all the changes we were making to the practice. Since then, we have made posts on anti-fog treatments for glasses, and socially-distanced eye tests.

A lot of people have commented that they have seen the videos, and there were many more shares and likes than our posts received pre-COVID. There has also been a definite increase in the number of people, new patients especially, making enquiries through our Facebook and Google pages. So I am guessing that more people are aware of the business than before.

Now that my team are back from furlough, I am using them in the videos more than myself. When I started making the social media videos, I felt self-conscious about putting them out for everyone to see. But having had a positive response, we are going to keep doing them.

I think it has helped to give the business some personality, but also lets people get to know us as friendly and approachable too. We’ll definitely keep doing it.

I have learned… new skills as a contact tracer


Tejinder Kahlon, optometrist at Moorfields Private Eye Hospital and The Institute of Optometry: I work part-time at Moorfields Private Eye Hospital and The Institute of Optometry. During the lockdown in spring, both practices had to close and I was furloughed. I felt grateful that I was safe at home with my family, especially whilst having to home-school my children, but I also wanted to do more to help during the coronavirus pandemic.

When I saw the advert for an NHS Test and Trace clinical contact caseworker (CCW), I applied straightaway and was accepted for the position. The role involves calling people who have tested positive for coronavirus, advising self-isolation for 10 days from the start of symptoms, and tracing people they have had close contact with before the symptoms started.

Strong and effective communication and problem solving are key skills for optometrists, so I was already in a good position when starting my new role on the virtual frontline. Something we face daily as optometrists is the need to make a decision about the most appropriate course of action whilst under pressure. As a CCW, I have had to use my clinical knowledge to know when to escalate complex cases.

I soon learned that the job was not simply to trace people’s contacts, but also to provide practical and emotional support. It requires a great deal of compassion and care during this time of fear, and my skill set has enabled me to provide this reassurance and support for anxious cases.

In my CWW role I have received extensive training around memory-jogging techniques, an important skill which I will carry with me into my role as an optometrist for more effectively taking history and symptoms. My IT skills were also upgraded and I learned to use new systems.

illustration of health worker

I have also used the time during lockdown to indulge in my passion for painting portraits.

I participated in a project #portraitsforNHSheroes, organised by the artist Tom Croft. I was paired with two NHS healthcare workers who had worked tirelessly through the pandemic, and created pastel portraits as a way of thanking them and hopefully lifting their spirits. These were sent to the recipients free of charge, and one of the portraits was exhibited in an online gallery.