“We want to encourage the progression of assistive technology knowledge in the sector as a whole” – Alexandra Webster

Alexandra Webster MSc, PGDipE, FBDO CL, FHEA, FBCLA is a qualified dispensing optician and contact lens optician and has worked in both independent and multiple practice.

She is a practical examiner and theory paper marker for ophthalmic dispensing and a practical contact lens examiner for the Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO). Alex is also Head of CPD at ABDO and has worked in contact lens professional services and optical education for over 7 years, gaining a Master’s degree in Healthcare Professional Education. Alex is an experienced presenter and facilitator, as well as author of CPD.

We sat down with Alex to understand the current status of the knowledge of assistive technology in England’s primary eye care sector, why it is essential for both professionals and patients that this knowledge is easily attainable, and more…

 

In your experience, what is the knowledge of assistive technology like amongst eye health professionals in the primary sector across England?

“Speaking from personal experience, prior to carrying out research of my own accord, my knowledge of assistive technology for people with low visions was very limited – and I think it is likely similar for many professionals in our sector. It is not something that is currently included in our undergraduate syllabus, and, therefore, it is easy to see why GOC registrants are graduating without a great understanding of the technology.

That is not to say assistive technology is not covered at all; there is a focus on the optics side, handheld magnifying glasses, bar magnifiers, dome magnifiers, and the like, which means the technical knowledge of how optics work and how they benefit the patient is high, but practical experience communicating with patients can be low. And, of course, this technical knowledge doesn’t translate to the more advanced, electronic assistive technologies.

Our role as dispensing opticians and optometrists is to provide knowledge and tools for our patients to manage or improve their sight. At the moment, I think that seems to fall within a narrow area of optical appliances, so there is a real need to catch up regarding assistive technology, and I think it is starting to happen, which is good.

There are some things that don’t help, such as I think there is still a misconception of who assistive technology is for. I think there is a general view that assistive technology is more targeted at people with innate severe eye conditions when actually that is not the case. I think it is as simple as a lot of people not knowing these things exist and, actually, that a lot of this tech is just as suitable for someone experiencing age-related eyecare degeneration.

In summary, I think awareness of assistive technology in the primary sector is growing and, with it, knowledge – but there is still a way to go. I would anticipate changes in the syllabus which will ensure newly trained primary care eyecare professionals graduate with this knowledge, and I think we are starting to see more CPD sessions targeted at this area to grow the skillset of incumbent primary care practitioners.”

 

Why do you think it is important to improve the awareness of what is available for people with low vision to eye health professionals?

“For me, everybody deserves to be supported, and we as a sector are failing them if we don’t have sufficient knowledge to at least point them in the right direction. As an eyecare professional, if you are not up to date with the modern technology that is available, then you are limiting the effectiveness of the care you can give to your patients. Our patients look up to us and expect us to know about all things related to eyecare.

Opticians are educated to follow processes and procedures that may not always lead to the best solution for the patient.

With all aspects of eye care, we should be talking about patient need, and I think if we were to have those conversations, we would see that assistive technology could be more appliable to a much broader set of people. If we as eyecare professionals have that knowledge and the confidence to talk about it with our patients, then we can at least pass it on, ensuring our patients can make informed decisions.

 

In your opinion, what do you think would be a good way to introduce assistive technology to the primary eye care sectors?

“I think education is the key, and that can be through both a programme of CPD and updates to the current curriculum for students.

I also think there could be a better understanding of what funding and grants are available to people with a visual impairment to obtain assistive technology for use at home or in the workplace. I think there is a general view that assistive technology is too expensive for many people when actually, we don’t know what level of value our patients would assign to such devices.

Beyond the increase in knowledge, practically, I think it is also important to bring about change by working with the businesses and suppliers of assistive technology and come up with a business model that works for both assistive technology suppliers and eyecare retail business owners such as high street opticians.

Particularly in the larger chains of opticians, eye-health professionals are actively trained to recommend a very specific selection of solutions. I think as a primary eye-health sector, we need to look after people in a holistic way, and I think with the right cooperation on a business level, this could happen – allowing us to continue providing great and tailored solutions to our patients and remain viable businesses.”

 

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