Dispensing, Report

Dispensers: Retailers or practitioners?

Optical dispensers fit and adapt glasses, but is the role they fill in practice that of a healthcare professional or retailer? STEVEN DARAS examines the arguments for and against.

Both optometrists and optical dispensers (also known as dispensing opticians in other countries) can dispense ophthalmic prescriptions. However, most optometrists, apart from giving some preliminary advice at the handover, don’t actually dispense. This task is generally left to others in the practice, such as optical dispensers/dispensing opticians or optical retailers/sales staff.

Steven Daras.

Based on this, should optical dispensers be considered qualified practitioners or professional salespeople?

According to Millodot’s Dictionary of Optometry and Visual Science, the definition for dispensing opticians is: “One who fits and adapts spectacles and contact lenses on the basis of a prescription by an ophthalmologist or optometrist (ophthalmic optician). In many countries dispensing opticians cut and edge lenses and fit them into a frame.”

Optical dispensers are defined as: “The act of issuing an optical appliance which corrects, remedies or relieves defects of vision (definition of the World Council of Optometry).”

According to local industry research company IBISWorld’s Optometry and Optical Dispensing-Australia Marketing Research Report (November 2017): “…the main activity of optical dispensers is dispensing spectacles or contact lenses…”

None of these definitions are clear about whether optical dispensers should be qualified or not. Australia no longer has licensed optical dispensers, and many people in both corporate and private practices are able to sell optical appliances as optical assistants, often relying on minimal in-house or ‘tailored’ training.

Part of this may be due to the superior lenses that are on now offer, as well as the recent smaller spectacle frames leading to less lens thickness and minimal lens aberrations. This has allowed some optical retailers to treat optical appliances as retail items. As frame sizes increase so will potential problems for the wearer so dispensing, not selling, will be required. 

I hope that we won’t see spectacles being retailed as ‘small, medium or large’ anytime soon. If this is accepted by the public there is a danger people may start to look elsewhere for their eyewear ‘products.’ They may even begin to consider that all practice staff are just salespeople.

In an online article last year, ODMA Eye Talk Consultants reported Australia Post figures that indicate 10% of Australians’ total retail spending is now with online retailers. Of this, 32% of purchases were after 7.00 pm, opening the door to more competition from large online and offshore retailers.

So, where does that leave optical dispensing? Does it sit in the retail stream that does not necessarily require a qualification, or does it sit in the allied health stream where it does?

There is no separate optical dispensing award, so most employers are guided by retail awards when setting things like pay rates and work conditions. Pay rates between qualified and non-qualified staff vary between employers. Pay should recognise the qualification, but also consider the knowledge, skills and experiences of the individual.

Since Private Health Fund provider numbers are restricted to qualified optical dispensers who have completed the current Certificate IV in Optical Dispensing course or higher, it would seem that the qualified allied health stream is more valued by this part of the wider industry.

An optical prescription is part of a clinical plan for a patient outlined by the prescriber. It is therefore important for the spectacles, contact lenses, low vision aids to have been correctly interpreted and dispensed by someone who is qualified and skilled to do so.

Thus, using optical dispensing knowledge to recognise therapeutic needs creates a stronger link in the chain that provides quality eye health. It also creates a solid platform to better educate the wearer, which can help generate the need for more specific spectacle lenses and therefore sales. Smart practitioners know that great optical dispensers build practices.

Good dispensers also join their respective professional associations; the Australian Dispensing Opticians Association (ADOA) or the Association of Dispensing Opticians New Zealand (ADONZ). Becoming an active member helps them become great at what they do.

So, what do you think?