“I don’t think a role like this exists anywhere else in the country”
Optometrist and project manager for Villa Vision, Nikhil Sonpal, speaks to OT about his passion for widening children’s access to eye care
01 December 2022
Growing up, I was always drawn towards the health professions.I did a lot of work experience during my A-levels, including a placement with Dollond & Aitchison, not far from where I lived. It was then that I realised that optometry was a career that I wanted to consider.
After completing my A-levels, I was offered a place at City University, London, to study optometry.That was over 20 years ago now. It was a great experience: being in London, living in the capital, studying optometry. It was also where I met my future wife.
I knew I wouldn’t always be in a consulting room.I felt like this career would take me in lots of different directions. I have always been ambitious and eager to discover different opportunities, so from the outset, I believed that becoming an optometrist would inevitably offer me the chance to explore different avenues within the optics profession. That was my mindset from the beginning.
I did my pre-reg with Dollond & Aitchison.It was a bit of a commute from where I lived, so I remember the long days, travelling back and forth from work. It was challenging, but fun.
Pre-reg can be a real eye opener. It merges everything you have been taught over three years at university, and allows you to put a lot of it into practice. That, as well as travelling, working, and studying, means it was quite an intense year. You are launched into the world of High Street optometry, linking the skills of the clinical side with the commercial element. I really enjoyed that. It was a huge opportunity to learn so much about community-based optometry.
I was offered a role with Dollond & Aitchison and became a mobile optometrist for the Midlands region.I covered several different practices within my area, which I really enjoyed. It felt like a huge step at first, as a newly qualified optometrist, as this role didn’t quite give me that settling in period that many colleagues experienced in their resident positions. I had to adapt very quickly to every practice, which can be tough in your first year.
I knew I wouldn’t always be in a consulting room. I felt like this career would take me in lots of different directions
Sometimes the best way to learn is by being thrown into the deep end. I soon found that I was a few months ahead on my progress compared to colleagues who were residents, and this was largely down to my role constantly pushing me out of my comfort zone to find the confidence as a qualified optometrist. That taught me so much. I look back and think that was a fortunate position to be in, to be able to learn so much from different practices.
Within the first couple of years in this role, I began to get involved with supporting new pre-reg optometrist that had just started their placement: marking coursework, mentoring, and facilitating local training.
In 2009, there was the merger between Dollond & Aitchison and Boots.Following this merger, I put myself forward for a new role and was successful in becoming a clinical support optometrist for the Midlands. This involved various aspects, such as clinical support for local optometrists, auditing and implementing standard operating procedures, investigating and resolving clinical concerns, as well as test room coaching and training. My time was split between days in practice and the duties of this role. It was varied, which I loved, and another step in the right direction for me, giving me a different level of experience.
As well as having a clinical interest, I was also very much into children’s eye health and preventative care.So, whilst employed, I began to create my own eye health project. I felt there was a need to promote eye care more amongst children. I managed to set up an initiative called Eye Inspire, which took me into local primary schools, educating children about the importance of eye health and ways to look after their eyes for the future, whilst also raising awareness.
There is a lot of data and research surrounding children’s eye health, highlighting in particular the importance around preventative care and early intervention, and how this could have an impact on their future. I wanted to be part of that.
The Aston Villa Foundation and Aston University wanted to launch their own local eye health initiative, which was similar to what I was already doing.They were keen to raise awareness of eye health in schools, but also offer vision screening and eye testing. I felt that with my background and experience, this was the perfect opportunity to share our ambitions.
I became project manager and optometrist for Villa Vision at the Aston Villa Foundation.When I started my role, in December 2019, concepts had been agreed and funding had been secured from the Premier League and Aston University for Villa Vision. Along with a dedicated Health Coach, I was given the opportunity to put this initiative together and lead it within the local community of Birmingham.
I already had the background knowledge and educational material that I was using in schools at the time, so that was key when developing the content that we were going to deliver. The challenge was more about learning how to efficiently vision screen children on a large scale, and how to facilitate comprehensive eye examinations by designing a fully equipped eye care van.
At this point, Essilor had also joined the Villa Vision project as a collaborating partner. We were now a unique three-way partnership, between a football club, an educator, and an optical supplier. My first three months in this role was all about the research, development, and design of the programme, and how to deliver it.
We started to pilot workshop sessions, and soft launched Villa Vision in early 2020. Then in March 2020 we hit the first lockdown.We were on the verge of fully launching at this point. Our converted eyecare van arrived 10 days before the first lockdown was announced. We were primed to go, but after settling into a new way of working, it didn’t deter us from pushing ahead. We kept going. We knew that this was something we could still deliver, albeit in a different way. We went virtual to start with, supporting primary schools that remained open for children of key workers. We delivered an adapted version of our workshop to those children, helping to inspire them when thinking about their eye health.
There is a lot of data and research surrounding children’s eye health, highlighting in particular the importance around preventative care and early intervention, and how this could have an impact on their future. I wanted to be part of that
In September 2020 we fully launched the programme.Apart from the third lockdown in early 2021, it has been full steam ahead since then. Schools have really been receptive and appreciative of what we do. They really value the importance of what we offer. We have identified many children that have needed support visually, so there are now a lot more children in schools who are able to learn more successfully as a result of having their vision corrected.
Villa Vision in numbers
Children interactions: 7000+ (workshops and vision/colour vision screening)
Full eye examinations given: 200
Free spectacles dispensed: 200+
We are based here [at Aston Villa’s ground, Villa Park.]I don’t think a role like this exists anywhere else in the country, where an optometrist can work for a football club and be given the trust and ownership to build, develop and design a programme, and deliver it in this way. In terms of job satisfaction, I couldn’t ask for more.
After you qualify as an optometrist, most will often follow either one of three career paths: community-based practice, hospital optometry, or continue along the academic route. I believe that this role can almost offer a fourth option. It’s a way of using our skillset to identify and directly support the eye care needs of the communities we serve. That’s something that has always been close to my heart, so to be able to use my skills in that capacity is very rewarding.
To have this role, to be able to do everything that I can dream of doing within my profession and my career, is the highlight for me. The power of a football badge within a classroom when promoting something as important as eye health means we can have a bigger impact on those in front of us. The children tend to listen a little bit more closely, and they take in more information. It helps to empower our message by having such a strong hook. To have a football club going into a school is just huge for the children. That excitement really translates into their enthusiasm and their learning. Every day gives me a new experience.
We were featured on Match of the Day in December 2020, and in May 2021 we had the opportunity to meet HRH Prince William.As an Aston Villa fan, Prince William was keen to know more about Villa Vision, so we were able to meet him in person at Aston Villa’s training ground. We were honoured to speak with him and share our progress. That was a great opportunity to showcase what we are doing.
In May 2022, we were proud to win Best Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative at the National Football Awards. That was great recognition for what we have been able to achieve so far, as a small team, in the time that we have been delivering this project.
We’d love to be able to see this grow further, and that’s always been my ambition.
From the day I started this role, I knew that not only was this the career path and project that I had been searching for, but I wanted to see this initiative grow both locally and spread to other parts of the country. We want to use what we do in Birmingham as a platform and a model to create this opportunity elsewhere. There’s such a need for this type of intervention; we’ve identified that from what we have done in the past two and a half years.
Ultimately, it does come down to the level of funding that we can attract and secure. But we feel that if we can prove how successful we have been locally, then why not dream bigger and think how we can do this nationally?