Optometrist: An Agent of Change in a Changing Development Landscape

Head of Governance and Operations
Organisation: Australia for UNHCR – Australians Supporting the UN Refugee Agency

Ethiopia_Mission to GambellaI’ll be honest: when I was asked to do a blog for World Optometry Day I responded, “but I’m hardly still a normal optometrist”.

On second thought I decided that in our current situation: what is normal? We are in the midst of the largest, global public health crisis the world has ever seen. None of us will escape the impacts of COVID-19; for the lucky ones it may only be a disrupted lifestyle for a few weeks or months, others will face significant financial struggles and sadly too many will die.

These unknown times may push people, including optometrists, into career changes and down non-traditional career paths. My career path has certainly been non-traditional.

After several years working as an optometrist in private and corporate practice I then moved into public health and international development within the eye care sector – working towards establishing optometry education programmes and services where they were most needed. Now, I’ve moved even further – still in development but in governance and operations for Australia for UNHCR, the UN Refugee agency, supporting the world’s 70 million refugees.

Refugees are amongst societies’ most vulnerable and at-risk populations, in urgent need of many services – whether it be the basic need of food and shelter, education, or health… including eye care and optometry services. Several NGOs and IAPB members are involved in providing eye care services to refugees, including The Fred Hollows Foundation who are providing sight restoring treatments to Rohingya refugees.

So, what led an optometrist to now be working for Australia for UNHCR? A gradual career change! Working in public health saw my passion and interest grow in several areas. Notably, that

  • we needed to be able to ensure our programmes were effective. That eyecare and optometry programmes are being developed sustainably, building local capacity and integrating into local systems.
  • we needed to ensure our staff were working in a supportive and engaged environment. Never to under value staff as an organisation’s biggest asset.

In these challenging times the organisations that will survive and thrive are more likely to be those that are effective in their programmes and where they are run by true leaders who can continue to motivate, engage and support their people. People will get through this crisis together and so will their organisations.

Ten years ago, two years ago, I could not have predicted where my career path would take me. Often it’s a challenge or unforeseen road bump that sends us in a different direction. COVID-19 is much more than a road bump but a time of immense challenges. We are health professionals and globally with at least 2.2 billion people visually impaired –there will always be a place for optometrists. Yet, for some this public health crisis may head us off in a different direction. From regular optometry to working for an eye care NGO or even supporting refugees! Don’t be afraid to make that change and don’t be afraid, as an optometrist, to be an agent of change.

Image on top: © T. Mukoya / Australia for UNHCR