Postcard from… Vietnam
Optometrist Fiona Buckmaster on her role working as a lecturer at Hanoi Medical University – and the possibilities at the heart of a new profession
12 February 2024
Optometrist Fiona Buckmaster can trace the start of her ambition to work overseas to a lecture delivered by the late global eye care leader, Professor Brien Holden.
In 2015, Buckmaster attended Holden’s British Contact Lens Association presentation outlining the scale of uncorrected refractive error across the world.
“It could have been a very depressing talk, because the scale of visual impairment is so gigantic. But Brien was such an inspirational person that I came out wondering ‘How can I get involved?’” Buckmaster shared with OT.
Since that lecture, Buckmaster has gone on to gain experience working on the High Street as an optometrist, alongside teaching and research roles within a university. She completed a Master’s degree in public health, a postgraduate certificate in international health and overseas voluntary work in sub-Saharan Africa.
Buckmaster shared with OT that the qualifications she pursued helped her to build up the skills necessary to be in the best position to help.
“You need to be putting in the work so that you have the knowledge and experience to help to drive things forward,” she said.
In 2023, Buckmaster successfully applied for a role as an optometry lecturer at Hanoi Medical University. The position is sponsored by the Brien Holden Foundation.
The four-year programme currently has around 250 students enrolled. There are around 400 qualified optometrists working in Vietnam, a country with 100 million people.
Moments in Vietnam
This translates to around one optometrist for every 250,000 people, far short of the World Health Organization recommended target of at least one optometrist per 10,000 population. In the UK, there is one optometrist for every 4500 people.
However, the profession is far more established than a decade ago, when there were only three optometrists in Vietnam.
One of the ways the Brien Holden Foundation aims to support sustainable eye care within the country is by training optometry graduates to become junior faculty members – so they can shape the future of the profession.
“They are really the pioneers of optometry. They’re not just clinicians – they’re educators and policy advocates too,” Buckmaster said.
“I feel really fortunate to work alongside them during such an exciting time for optometry,” she said.
The optometry profession in Vietnam is relatively young, with the first degree programmes launching in 2014.
Find out about optometrist Luke McRoy-Jones' experience of working in Malta online.
The ophthalmology and optometry department of Hanoi Medical University organised Vietnam’s first myopia conference in 2023.
“When we perform school screenings, we're finding that up to 75% of children in some schools in urban areas have myopia. There’s a lot of enthusiasm and motivation within the profession to take on these new areas of practice,” Buckmaster shared.
Optometrists who graduate from the course will mainly go on to work in the hospital or High Street clinics.
“The main difference from the UK is that optometrists don't have an independent licence to practice – they have to work alongside an ophthalmologist. But that can be in a variety of settings,” Buckmaster shared.
She added that due to the level of unmet need, there was limited regulation of spectacle dispensing – with some optical shops autorefractors to take a measurement for spectacles.
“That was a symptom of just not having enough practitioners. As the number of practitioners increases, the regulations catch up as well,” Buckmaster said.
It costs very little to get someone a pair of glasses. It’s just getting care to the people who need it
The Brien Holden Foundation estimates there are around 16 million people with uncorrected refractive error in Vietnam, including two million children.
Buckmaster shared that the imbalance between the number of optometrists in Vietnam and the level of visual need can lead to challenges.
“We do see a lot of late-stage pathology, especially in people from rural areas where they might not present until their vision becomes a big problem,” she said.
“That is where optometry can really come in, as primary eye care providers. We can start to not just focus on treating, but also preventative care as well,” Buckmaster shared.
Although Buckmaster’s lectures are supported by live translation, she has made an effort to learn Vietnamese so she can better communicate with her students.
She shared that there are challenges to learning a tonal language – where the pitch of someone’s voice can change the meaning of a word.
“I can speak at the level of a seven-year-old right now with some really specific optometry vocabulary,” Buckmaster shared.
“As an educator, one of my strongest attributes has always been my communication skills. While overcoming communication barriers has been a humbling experience, I’ve also learned to be a much better communicator by doing so,” she reflected.
While she is unsure how long she will remain in Vietnam after her contract ends in September, Buckmaster believes that her career will continue to focus on addressing uncorrected refractive error.
“For me, it’s just so frustrating, because we know how to fix it. It costs very little to get someone a pair of glasses. It’s just getting care to the people who need it,” she emphasised.
“There are 1.2 billion people in the world right now who have uncorrected refractive error. It's such a massive problem, that I don't really foresee a time where I'm not working on that,” Buckmaster concluded.
Main image: optometrist, Fiona Buckmaster, is photographed at Mai Chau, Vietnam.
Interested in sharing your story of working as an optometrist abroad? Get in touch with [email protected]