A deeper connection with his community and ability to make a difference through outreach work on Kangaroo Island are some of the reasons why George & Matilda optometrist JELLE DE BOCK chose a regional career.
It’s unusual for people to find Friday afternoon the most productive part of their week, but as a young Adelaide-based optometrist around the turn of the century, this was when Mr Jelle de Bock performed his best work, setting him on the path to a career in regional practice.
At the time (1997-2002), de Bock was proving himself as a budding optometrist at Vision Centre located in and around Adelaide’s CBD – his first job after graduating from the University of Auckland. When most people were winding down for the week, he’d be sent 1.5 hours south to a branch in Yankalilla to run a clinic for locals.
“I found I was seeing a much broader spectrum of people and conditions. In Adelaide, I was working in Rundle Mall and Marion and in those locations you didn’t get to see the pathology that you saw rurally,” he said.
“This is because patients often go straight through to the specialist whereas rurally they don’t want to travel, they would rather be treated and managed locally, if possible. Ultimately, I felt I could practise better, I was able to see and do more.”
De Bock eventually left Vision Centre and established his own two-day-a-week independent practice, Fleurieu Optometrists, in Normanville, the neighbouring town to Yankalilla. To make ends meet, he also performed locum work for Laubman & Pank which involved outreach clinics to Kangaroo Island, a short ferry ride away.
“But within 12 months, I was working five days a week in my own practice; it was clear this was an area that needed help. I thought this would be a great place to establish a practice and as soon as people realised they didn’t have to travel, then hopefully it’ll make a business for itself – and it did,” he said.
“I was still locuming on Kangaroo Island and people there started asking me, ‘why are you doing this work for someone else, why aren’t you doing it for yourself?’. And I thought, ‘yeah, good point’.”
Fleurieu Optometrists flourished, doing so well that it eventually captured the attention of George & Matilda (G&M) Eyecare, a network that partners with high-performing independents. G&M takes care of the assets and business functions of the practice, allowing the optometrist to focus on caring for patients.
“We were getting sick and tired of all the after-hours administrative work after 15 years. The offer from G&M came across and we were sitting there thinking this is too good to be true. But after a year of looking into it, we realised it was the real deal and joined the network in 2019,” he said.
Today, de Bock continues running George & Matilda Eyecare for Fleurieu Optometrists in Normanville with his practice manager wife Luanne, while continuing outreach work on Kangaroo Island. With another provider visiting “sporadically”, he said he’s the only one offering true continuity of care on the island. There’s also a visiting ophthalmologist who prescribes treatments, but no extensive diagnostics or surgeries are performed locally. Instead, residents are asked to travel to Adelaide – something they are reluctant to do.
“We now go eight whole-weeks of the year to Kangaroo Island. We go across on a Sunday and set up, test Monday through Friday and come back Friday nights and we’re always fully booked,” de Bock said.
“This is the most fulfilling part of practising regionally for me. Kangaroo Island locals often refuse to travel off the island, even though they should be seeing an eye specialist for their glaucoma etc. It means I have to write a letter to the eye specialist explaining this scenario and then propose a way of treating them. Ninety-nine times out of 100 they tell me to go for gold, but if you run into any serious issues, then we’ll need to try and persuade them to come across.
“The limited ophthalmology service provided on the island does frustrate me, but I’m looking forward to the day that we as optometrists can extend our scope because then I’ll be able to help more people. Until then, our hands are tied, but the industry is taking baby steps.”
Back on the mainland, in Normanville, Fleurieu Optometrists has also become a popular spot for Flinders University optometry students to conduct their clinical placements. In fact, the practice won an award from the university in 2022 acknowledging this.
“We’re a friendly bunch down here and I try to be different to the other placement partners. My attitude is that I want to help with your skills and knowledge so that when people see you, they will say to their friends and family, ‘you should see my optometrist’, rather than the optometrist. It’s about providing that personalised care.”
But overall, when he thinks about it, it is the deeper connection with community that cemented de Bock’s desire for regional optometry.
“It’s a slower pace and so people are often happy to have a chat. It means you understand their life and situation better and, in turn, allows us to tailor a solution to their needs or wants,” he said.