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Educators unite to increase Indigenous optometrist numbers  

Leaders of optometry schools in Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa have formed a new alliance aimed at strengthening Indigenous eyecare through better student education and increasing the number of Indigenous optometrists.

Details of the new group called Leaders in Indigenous Optometry Education Network (LIOEN) have featured in a paper, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

The group is determined to improve Indigenous eyecare by addressing unfavourable statistics that show optometry has the lowest representation of Indigenous people in Australian health professions (seven out of 5,781 registered optometrists or 0.1%) – well short of 3.3% in the general population.

Representation is no better in New Zealand, where an estimated 2% of 931 optometrists identify as Mãori, considerably less than the 16.5% representation in the general population.

Without further intervention, the paper notes the situation is unlikely to improve. There are thought to be only six Indigenous students enrolled across the seven accredited optometry programs in Australia and New Zealand.

LIOEN involves Professor Sharon Bentley (Queensland University of Technology), Professor Nicola Anstice (Flinders), Professor James Armitage (Deakin), Associate Professor Jason Booth (Flinders), Professor Steven Dakin (Auckland), Professor Garry Fitzpatrick (Western Australia), Associate Professor Peter Herse (Canberra), Professor Lisa Keay (UNSW) and Professor Allison McKendrick (Melbourne).

“There are two important ways in which optometry schools can reduce eye health inequities. These are: firstly, by integrating cultural safety and Indigenous perspectives into the curricula; and secondly, by improving the recruitment and graduation of Indigenous students,” the group stated.

“Although some work has been undertaken to improve cultural safety training in optometry programs, there is variability in the curricula, there are few Indigenous graduates and there are few Indigenous academics involved in programs.”

Time for ‘radical improvement’ 

The Optometry Council of Australia and New Zealand (OCANZ) has previously recognised the role of educational institutions by mandating compulsory Indigenous health curricula in optometry.

Further, to expand and increase curricula consistency, OCANZ provided specific guidance to optometry schools by developing the Optometry Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Curriculum Framework in 2019.

However, for the framework successfully deepen the understanding of cultural safety in the discipline and change practice, the paper highlights the importance of upskilling of optometry educators, along with sharing and co‐creating teaching resources.

The paper notes that medicine and nursing are more advanced in this space, with the formation of the Leaders in Indigenous Medical Education (LIME) Network in 2005 and the Leaders in Indigenous Nursing and Midwifery Education Network (LINMEN) in 2017.

With LIOEN, optometry program leaders believe is it time for a radical improvement in Indigenous eye health through higher education and, in doing so, “to address privilege and stand against racism”.

“We recognise that this cannot be achieved without partnering with Indigenous peoples, that it will require critical individual and institutional reflection, that it will be a considerable undertaking and will take time,” the group stated.

“Given limited resources and the enormous workload placed upon Indigenous leaders and educators, working collaboratively with other healthcare professions might increase the effectiveness of Indigenous education networks and the likelihood of sustainability, resulting in a healthcare system free of racism and better health outcomes for all.”

Bentley said the importance of partnerships and networks in advancing cultural safety and Indigenous representation in optometry cannot be emphasised enough.

“So far, a highlight of this endeavour has been a workshop to discuss the issues, facilitated by Professor Gregory Phillips, Indigenous Allied Health Australia and Ngã Pou Mana, and attended by all heads of optometry programs, OCANZ, Optometry Board of Australia, Optometry Australia, New Zealand Association of Optometrists, Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians Board, with guest speakers Renata Watene, Shannon Davies and Kristopher Rallah-Baker,” she said.

“We are grateful to the Victorian Optometrists Teaching and Education (VOTE) trust and OCANZ for grants that made this possible.”

The paper can be found here.

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