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Getting your feet wet in a regional practice

Moving to a rural optometry practice can be rewarding and challenging in equal measure. Specsavers optometrist THUAN TU shares his journey in regional Victoria where he advanced from graduate practitioner to practice manager.

Graduates entering the workforce, no matter what field they’re in, all too easily overlook the multitude of professional opportunities present in rural and regional Australia. Optometry is no exception, with stories of practices struggling for months, or even years, to fill positions not entirely uncommon.

However, those who do make the move outside of a capital city are often surprised by what they find. Cities may offer hustle and bustle, and might seem to offer more opportunities, but the lifestyle accompanied by practicing in one of Australia’s regional centres can be just as appealing for many reasons.

Getting out there

After completing an orthoptics degree, Thuan Tu decided to take the plunge into optometry at Deakin University.

“It was an impulsive decision I made with my best friend, and it turned out to be the best decision I have made in life,” Tu says.

After graduating in 2016 and looking for a place to begin his professional career, Tu says he was drawn to Specsaver’s graduate program. The design of the two-year scheme, which provides new optometrists with all the tools they need to hit the ground running, was a big part of his decision.

“It is well thought out and allows students to get as much exposure to real life practice as they can, and at the same time making sure help and support is available at every step of the way,” Tu says.

It would involve moving to the regional Victorian town of Horsham, 300km northwest of Melbourne with a population of 16,500, but he was confident it was the right decision thanks to the mentor Specsavers partnered him with.

“At the interview I was very impressed by Michael, my mentor. He seemed very genuine and caring, and as I had heard from my mate he is the best boss anyone could ever ask for. So, I took a chance and it turned out to be great.”

Tu describes Michael as being humble and having a wealth of knowledge that he is ready to pass on to any student.

“He is the type of role model that I’d like to become in the future,” Tu says.

Though the move to the Horsham was daunting, Tu says Specsavers made the process as straightforward as possible. Financial support was available, and there was always someone ready to talk when problems arose.

Challenging pathologies

A significant difference between urban and rural practice can be the variety of conditions that regularly present. While many people come into city stores just looking for a new pair of spectacles, Tu says he expects almost everyone who walks into a rural practice to have some kind of ocular issue.

“I see a lot of foreign bodies in the eyes from metal grinding, given that [Horsham] is a farming district. A lot of red eye, painful eyes, and a lot of hay fever. Because of the farming, there is a lot of pollen in the air.”

Iritis and other inflammations, as well as macular degeneration and macular swelling from diabetes, are also fairly common. Tu says it all keeps him on his toes.

“When the patient walks in and they tell you all their symptoms and seem a bit worried, well, you have to get your brain working and go ‘okay, what are the differential diagnoses here?’”

Though challenging, Tu says eventually confirming a condition is highly rewarding.

“When you’re able to tell the patient ‘Hey, I know what’s going on and there is a treatment for that’ or ‘There is help’ they really feel relieved.”

Another significant difference is the frequency at which patients attend the practice. With less eyecare practices and a smaller local community, regulars become easy to recognise. This makes it is easier to build a rapport with patients, and also allows for a greater opportunity to educate people about how to get help they need more promptly.

“A lot of the time, I’ll say more than 50%, the patient will go to a GP for allergies, itchy eyes or red eyes, or even blurry vision,” Tu says. This usually results in the patient being directly referred to optometry or coming on their own a week or two later if nothing has improved.

“After the consultation I normally tell them ‘Look, next time this happens or if it happens to you again, or if it happens to your friends, family or colleagues, just tell them to come to an optometrist straight away, do not go to a GP because they are limited in what they can do’.

“However, I find that by raising public awareness, more people are coming to see us first for their eye problem.”

Living the life

Apart from the professional challenge, lifestyle is the other major appeal of regional practice. Tu says he didn’t find himself missing any major amenities, Horsham has plenty of stores and NBN access, but it is important to keep yourself occupied.

“My advice is to learn or pick up a hobby if you decide to move to practice in the country, whether it’s fitness, playing an instrument or something else that you are interested in. It’s a great way to meet people and become part of the community.”

Tu says he’s tried several activities since moving to the country, including going to the gym and joining a local badminton club, but he is now enthusiastic to take flying lessons in the future. However, he did not initially strike a good work/life balance.

I struggled to adapt when I first moved to Horsham, however, support from my mentor and our Port Melbourne support office was tremendous and timely to address the issue straight away and get me back on track of my professional career.”

One piece of advice he has is to talk to someone about problems earlier rather than later.

“I don’t think I talked to my mentor about the non-clinical issues in the first few months, I just let things slide until it got to the point that he picked up on it and had to come to me and say ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ instead of me going to him first,” Tu says. The lifestyle is certainly not for everyone but opening up to colleagues provides plenty of avenues for help. This might be as simple as organising some social events outside of work to make you feel like you are part of the local community.

Professional advancement

Continuing with the regional lifestyle, Tu is this year moving on to Specsavers’ Echuca practice as a business-owning ‘optometrist partner’ after having completed the Specsavers Pathway Program. The program is designed to give optometrists and dispensers all the business skills and acumen they need become a store director, much of which is not taught at university.

“I think the biggest takeaway for me from the Pathway Program is learning how to lead a team in a business environment because I hadn’t ever led a team before, and how to have a proper conversation when problems arise,” Tu says.

“I’m an easy-going person, and I tend to avoid confrontations. It really changed me and my mindset to say ‘Yes, it’s going to be tough having to talk to people about these issues, but you have to do it as a business owner.’ If you don’t do it, you put aside the problem for one day but it’s going to come back and be bigger in the future. So better to address the issue right there and then, which will be more beneficial for the business and the people as well.”

Tu hopes that he can share his positive rural practice experience with other graduates moving through the system.

“As an optometrist partner in my new practice, I know we will get students joining us for their clinical placement and I welcome that. It’s great for the student and as a senior optom it’s a good opportunity to refresh your knowledge as well, mentoring and taking on a supervisory role. You learn a lot more through these interactions because the student brings a fresh face to what you’ve learnt, and they might just teach you a few things too.”

With exposure to a wide variety of ailments, Tu says the country is a great place for young optometrists to get invaluable experience.

“My strong advice to graduating students is to take a different approach to your first few years, come out to a country area and learn as much as you can, as that will be very valuable for your future career.

“Yes, you get that comfortable environment with city living, but you might not see as many conditions that will be crucial to your career.”