The CEO's view

“For most of us, a visit to an optometrist is a mysterious process”

The AOP’s Adam Sampson shares insight into his first eye examination experience since being appointed chief executive of the Association

black and white frames

Back before Christmas, the General Optical Council (GOC) announced that, as part of its review of the Opticians Act, it was commissioning research to understand the public’s attitudes to the possibility of allowing dispensing opticians to refract. My immediate reaction was one of incredulity: in my experience, the public had very little understanding of what went on during an eye examination, let alone what refraction involved or of the difference between a dispensing optician and an optometrist.

This sense of incredulity was strengthened when a couple of weeks later, I chanced on an article by writer and broadcaster Adrian Chiles, who was using his regular column in The Guardian to complain about the fact that his glasses kept slipping down his nose. Although he had sought advice, this had not been helpful. “Opticians,” he said, “spend hours faffing around which line you can read, and which is clearer – red or green – and all that carry on. And lately, they’ve started firing puffs of air at your eyeball to determine something or other.” But they had not successfully cured the issue he had gone to them with.

It was in this mood that I approached my latest eye appointment – my first since I began my role as chief executive of the AOP. The optometrist – an AOP Councillor – was someone I liked and trusted. And, true to form, the experience over the next hour or so was both highly professional and reassuring. Sitting in the consulting room, being asked to perform a series of unfamiliar tasks, may not be as stressful as, say, being in a dentist’s chair, but it is not without its tensions. One of my overwhelming takeaways from the experience is how much the soft, personal skills of the optometrist matter: each muttered “well done” or “perfect” may feel unnecessary but is vital in building confidence and rapport.

So, did I understand more at the end of that hour about the eye exam process than I did at the start? Yes – but largely because of the readiness of the optometrist to explain the purpose of the various tests I was undergoing. There were parts of what was happening which clearly spoke to refraction testing. But the purpose of many of the other procedures – including the puffs of air which Chiles talked of – was totally obscure to me. Had I not had such a fantastic optometrist, I would have left the practice still unaware of the full purpose of what had just gone on.

To a lesser extent, that was also true of my encounter with the dispensing optician. Again, for course, the distinction in professional rank was not something I would have known as a normal punter. But the relative absence of high-tech equipment and an open office setting were signals that something had changed.

I had – thanks to a chat with Feb31st – already acquired frames. If the fitting process was relatively understandable, the discussion of the lenses took me into a mysterious, jargon-filled world of which the only element I truly understood was the price. Indeed, my inability to understand properly how much difference the lenses I was discussing would make to me in practice made it tricky for me to make an informed decision, so I bowed to advice, trusting the professionalism of the dispensing optician.

I know that everything you do is familiar to you. I also understand how much effort most of you make to explain to people like me what you are doing with us. But make no mistake: for most of us, a visit to an optometrists is a mysterious process. What you do and why you are doing it is obscure to us, and when we receive a prescription and hand over our money, we have only a limited understanding of what we are paying for. I paid £400 for my glasses. The GOC is set to pay much more for its public opinion research. I can now see more clearly. Will the GOC be able to say the same?