I could not live without…

My academic work

Dr Clare O’Donnell, head of optometry at Optegra, on how her academic background is affecting clinical research embarked on by the hospital group

An cartoon image of library books piled up on a turquoise background

I qualified as an optometrist in Glasgow, and within a year I was invited to come back by Glasgow Caledonian University to teach. I wasn’t very experienced, but they gave me the opportunity and I took it. Right from the very beginning of my career, I was involved in teaching trainee optometrists, and I found that I really enjoyed it.

I also learned a lot as I was teaching others. You have to make sure that you’re well prepared and well informed. It came to the point where I enjoyed that half a day of teaching almost as much, if not more, than the other things that I was doing in my working week. I enjoyed the academic environment right from the get-go.

I was later invited to go out to New Zealand to teach full-time. They had quite complex patients presenting at the university eye clinic. When the students were away in the summer, I worked as a clinical optometrist. I loved it. It’s a great country, and it was a really enjoyable, professional thing to do for 12 months.

Back in the UK

Whilst I was in New Zealand, I applied for a clinical teaching assistant job at the University of Manchester, or UMIST, as it was then. I completed a PhD in contact lenses, and I had a fabulous time.

That period enabled me to do so many different things. Whilst I was doing my PhD, I was teaching half the time, training optometry students from first right through to final year, as well as medics who came in from the hospitals.

It was a great period, with some wonderful colleagues. I was able to present my research all over the world at conferences; I got to write my research up and see it published in internationally renowned journals. I would wholeheartedly recommend an academic career for anybody who has even slight inclinations to try it out, because it’s so diverse.

I would wholeheartedly recommend an academic career for anybody who has even slight inclinations to try it out, because it’s so diverse


Joining Optegra

All my training as an optometrist, my time in academia where I got to work with multidisciplinary groups of optometrists, doctors, and eye surgeons, and my PhD and later my MBA, meant I was a strong candidate when it came to the Optegra head of eye sciences role. They were looking for somebody who had clinical research and teaching experience and management knowledge.

More than a decade on, Optegra is now an international business. We’ve got clinics in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, and my job means I interact across territories. The training, foundations and experiences that I’ve had as a clinical and academic optometrist have meant that I’ve got this fantastic job now. It has stood me in good stead for what I’m doing.

Practical applications

To be able to keep abreast of the current literature, to interpret it, to understand and apply it, is really important in eye healthcare. It’s a sector of healthcare that is rapidly changing. With an ageing population, the demands on healthcare are also increasing. Inevitably, we have to look at how we meet that changing demand.

Part of my job is to be able to look at the literature, and at new advances, new lens types, new drugs or other treatments to improve outcomes for patients. Age-related macular degeneration is another growing area. If you look at the emerging literature, next year we’re going to see some new advances and treatment offerings. My research experience has given me the ability to look at the literature, evaluate it, and to make recommendations to colleagues within our business as to what looks like it could be a great addition to the services on offer to our patients.

At Optegra, we like to keep abreast of developments, but also contribute to the knowledge that’s out there. Being an academic enabled me to apply for a grant in dry eye in collaboration with some of the key players in ophthalmic research across Europe. Optegra was the only private business that was a beneficiary.

We had two PhD students funded within that grant. They were tasked with looking at how we do things like cataract and refractive surgery, and how sometimes the treatments that we apply to patients can highlight that they’ve got a dry eye issue. It also highlighted the importance of making sure that things like dry eye are addressed before we operate on these patients, to optimise the outcomes.

I’m really proud of the fact that we were able to provide that training for up-and-coming researchers. Had I not had academic experience, I wouldn’t have been able to apply for those grants, supervise PhD students, understand the research outcomes, or integrate those new learnings within our business for patient benefit. That academic experience has been hugely impactful to me.