How I got here

“Optometry just popped into my head”

Black & Lizars optometrist, Eilidh Thomson, on a chance meeting that changed the course of her career


Throughout school, I wanted to study law.

It’s strange looking back now, because I was always far better at sciences.

Between finishing school and starting at the University of Glasgow, I started to have real doubts. I knew I didn't want to do medicine, but I hadn't thought about other medical professions. The idea of optometry just popped into my head.

My mum and dad thought I shouldn't write law off before I’d started, so I decided to go. I was four weeks into the course, on the train with my best friend travelling to university, and next to her was a gentleman. I was telling my friend that I had regrets, and that I thought I should have done optometry.

The gentleman was a director of Black & Lizars. He said, "It’s fate that you’re talking about this, and I want to help."

It was because of that chance meeting that I'm here.

He gave me his card, so I phoned him and he arranged work experience. I went to a Black & Lizars practice in Glasgow and sat with the staff, including the practice manager, one of the optometrists, and a pre-reg, who was really influential, because he’d just finished university and was talking about how he'd found a really exciting career.

From that, the director of Black & Lizars said, "If you're serious about this, we'll help you." So, I dropped out of university, and he created a reception position for me at one of the practices close to home. I worked for Black & Lizars for a year and then applied to Glasgow Caledonian University, starting the following year. They kept me on as a Saturday girl all through university, and that's how it all began. I'm still in touch with that director today.

From university, the thing I always look back on is fourth year, when my friends and I did a research project on glare and contrast sensitivity.

Writing it up and getting into the statistics was something I'd never done before. I was also the president of the optometry society, planning all the social events. I graduated in 2013.

There wasn't a guarantee that I’d do my pre-reg with Black & Lizars.

There were six of us who were all Saturday students, and only three pre-reg places. I was lucky to get one, in the Milngavie practice. As stressful as the year was, I really enjoyed it. Everyone was invested in seeing me succeed. Reception had my competency poster stuck to their screen, and if a patient phoned with the criteria I needed, they'd book them in with me. I also had a very good pre-reg supervisor, who I'm still close to, who was a great sounding board and kept me on track and organised. I was very lucky to have all that support.

Everyone was invested in seeing me succeed


My newly qualified position with Black & Lizars was working between two small, single testing practices.

That was a huge challenge for me: I was newly qualified, working alone without another optometrist. But it made me more confident in my decision making. A supervisor was always a phone call away and happy for me to send photos or ask for advice, but I quickly learned to trust my own judgement, more so than I would have if there was somebody else next door. I had the challenge of being on my own, but I didn't feel unsupported.

I became an independent prescriber in 2017.

It was always on the cards. When I was newly qualified, my practice was quite far from the eye hospital, so I knew it would be beneficial to my patients to be able to prescribe in-house. There's a satisfaction in treating a problem rather than just diagnosing it. You see the patients come back; you've been able to manage their condition, and they're feeling better. It's one of the most satisfying aspects of the job.

There's a satisfaction in treating a problem rather than just diagnosing it


Getting involved with the Optometry Scotland executive committee in 2019 was a baptism of fire.

Typically, the committee meets monthly, but when COVID-19 hit in March 2020 we were meeting every week remotely, because things were changing all the time. It's interesting to have a focus on community optometry and being a part of a solution to try to make things better.

Recently, we've had a 3% rise in our GOS fees. That was a huge success, and Optometry Scotland were crucial in fighting for that. Possibly even more important has been securing an annual review of the funding, so that hopefully we can keep in line with inflation, securing it for the future.

Working with Optometry Scotland has allowed me to widen my optometry social circle, working closely with others in independent practices, multiples, and hospitals, to see the different ways that everyone works.

At the start of the pandemic, almost everyone was furloughed.

I was covering four practices in Edinburgh, doing remote triage, speaking to patients on the phone and working out what worked and what didn't. When you're thrown into that situation, you have to get comfortable in history and symptoms and making decisions based on a small amount of information.

Doing that right from the start, when there was no other option, made me more confident when people were starting to come back into the practice. I was able to say, “no, that person doesn't need to come in, we can do that remotely.” I could use my own experience to teach other optometrists what worked and what didn't.

I'm also now in a professional services role with Black & Lizars, and training is a big aspect.

I'm still testing four and a half days a week, and then I have half a day for professional services work. A lot of it is recruitment, dealing with clinical claims, arranging training – anything that comes under the clinical umbrella.

It gives us more ownership of the company, in a way. Your feedback and ideas can change how things progress. It's been a learning curve. You still come to work and take the best care of your patients that you can, but it's another side of the business that I hadn't been involved with before.

Your feedback and ideas can change how things progress. It's been a learning curve


I was part of the pilot scheme for NHS Education Scotland Glaucoma Award Training (NESGAT).

The idea is that patients will be able to be discharged from the eye hospital to NESGAT optometrists in the community. Instead of having to travel to the hospital we'll manage their care and follow them up. We had our first face-to-face meeting in February 2020, then the year had to be completely restructured. Everything had to move online. We eventually managed to get our hospital placements done towards the end of 2020 and into 2021.

I'm also part of an Optometry Scotland working group that is working closely with the stakeholders for the Education Strategic Review,

including Glasgow Caledonian University, the University of Highlands and Islands and NHS Education for Scotland, to try and get the best possible version of what the new education system is going to look like. Hopefully, we'll get something in place that works for everyone.

Professionally, the next step will be putting what I've learned via NESGAT into practice and seeing those patients with glaucoma that I can manage myself. I'd also like to become a College of Optometrists assessor, and possibly dip my toe back into the law world with some medico-legal work down the line.

One of my highlights was seeing my first pre-reg through to qualification.

It's a very proud moment, when you've managed to mould someone’s career. It's really great to see her come through, and she's hopefully going to be a fantastic optometrist. Being able to impart your wisdom to someone else is very fulfilling.