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Dispensing shake up predicted after years of inactivity

The Australian Dispensing Opticians Association (ADOA) has defended itself against accusations of lethargy, despite conceding it needs to be more active.

The NSW-based national body has been criticised for years by some in the industry over a lack of activity and transparency, as well as an unwillingness to represent all optical dispensers, rather than just those who are employed or own independent optometry practices.

Personal politics and lasting rifts, in particular with members of ADOA’s Victorian chapter and the privately run Australasian College of Optical Dispensers (ACOD), also appear to have contributed to a lack of cooperation within the now-deregulated industry.

Australia’s two largest dispensing associations have steadily drifted apart since deregulation, to the point where there is almost no communication between their boards. During this time, ADOA national has aligned itself with independent optometry and the TAFE NSW optical dispensing program, which has several lecturers on its board, while ADOA Victoria and ACOD have been more open to working across the whole sector, including with large corporate optometry chains. No other states have a formal dispensing body or association.

Complicating matters further is the fact that two of ACOD’s directors, Mr James Gibbins and Mr Chedy Kalach, were also TAFE lecturers and involved with ADOA before they resigned in 2016 to establish the new college – a move that generated considerable angst among some former colleagues.

Gibbins says while he believes ADOA has not fulfilled its role for many years, ACOD is willing to work with the national body – provided there is evidence the association is taking steps to rectify the issues that have been identified. He believes the Australian dispensing industry has been “crying out” for an active association and that change is desperately needed.

“Many industries in Australia are not regulated but they have active associations with really rigorous CPD programs. I don’t believe there has ever been an ADOA-organised program of CPD since deregulation and what dispensers really need is strong representation and advocacy,” he said.

“We also need a coordinated CPD program with some kind of certificate attached, which can engage dispensers, keep them updated and trained longer, and provide them with a proficiency statement.”

ADOA president Ms Amelia Roberts, who assumed the role in March from longstanding former leader Mr Martin Kocbek, told Insightshe understands the criticism and has been working behind the scenes with key board members to resolve many of the concerns from those in the dispensing community.

However, one of the major obstacles for the new president appears to be the ‘mountain of archive boxes’ left over from the old regimes, a legacy of a previous system that relied on paper-based record keeping, rather than digital.

“We are still sifting through them [boxes] bit-by-bit. But let’s not forget ADOA was the first institution to stand up for optical dispensing in Australia so a lot of respect has to be shown to its founders,” she explained.

“The former board did the best they could under the conditions they had, but it certainly hasn’t been easy – especially as it’s purely a volunteer job.”

Roberts, who had only been an ADOA director for 12 months before assuming the role of president, said she was open to working with the likes of ACOD, ADOA Victoria and corporate optometry to better represent dispensers, a position at odds with previous years.

“A lot of things have been said and done in the past and that seems to be a problem I haven’t been able to overcome to this point, but I certainly hope I can eventually,” she said.

“I do want to mend bridges, I do want to meet with people and I do want to figure out a resolution. Otherwise if nothing’s happening you lose sight of why you’re paying to be a member”

Bridging the divide

ADOA Victoria vice president Mr Leigh Robinson, said he was open to working with the national body, but to do so it needed to be collaborative and inclusive.

“We strongly adhere to the idea that a dispensing opticians association should represent all dispensing opticians, regardless of whether they work for an independent or corporate practice,” Robinson said.

“It also opens up greater opportunities for membership. If you only represent half the market then you’re only going to get half of the opportunities.”

While ADOA Victoria has successfully implemented a number of regular local CPD initiatives, Robinson could sympathise with the difficulty the national body has had. He suggested one of the greatest barriers holding back self-regulation is the desire by dispensers themselves to be involved in setting the direction of the industry.

“Self-regulation can only happen if the members drive it. In Victoria’s case, membership is low and it’s a battle we’ve had for many years. There is a lot of complacency amongst optical dispensers,” he said.

“However, there needs to be a strong representative body to self-regulate and say ‘this is the minimum requirement for an optical dispenser, this is the standard before you can be fit for practice'”

Deregulation and the subsequent lack of activity has also seen corporate optometry step into the void, with Specsavers now hosting the largest CPD event on the Australian dispensing calendar.

The Specsavers Dispensing Conference (SDC) has attracted around 800 attendees over the past two years, and the company’s head of ophthalmic lenses and dispensing advancement, Mr Richard Couch, agreed that dispensers, as a group, need to take more ownership.

“We see an optical dispensing market that wants more continuing education, that wants a wider and more varied offer, but which can be slow to take-up when specific opportunities arise,” Couch said.

“A great example of the ups and downs is last year’s SA Blue Sky conference – great that a dispensing stream was laid on but frustrating that it ended up being cancelled due to low numbers.

Specsavers hasn’t had any engagement with ADOA since the first SDC event in 2017, where it was an invited guest, but that may change in the future.

According to Roberts, the national association’s bylaws currently restrict it to working with only independent optometry practices. However, she’s engaged a lawyer to hopefully resolve this by Christmas so that ADOA is free to collaborate with the whole industry.

Roberts also said the board was already working towards a CPD program for 2019 – which would be open to ACOD and non-independent dispensers – as well as improving the association’s website.

However, given the current state of atrophy seems to have surrounded Australian dispensing for some time, many people say they will believe it when they see it.