Feature, Report

Getting to know Optometry Australia president, Murray Smith

As he takes charge of the Optometry Australia presidency, MURRAY SMITH is drawing on his keen observations from a near-decade of involvement with the peak professional body and his compassionate leadership style to enact change for the profession.

An optometry graduate from Queensland University of Technology (QUT), optometrist Mr Murray Smith has worked in corporate and independent practices on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Darwin, Hobart, and now Melbourne, where he currently practises at Eyecare Plus Clifton Hill.

He has also worked as a clinical optometrist in an ophthalmology practice, trained eyecare nurses in Papua New Guinea with The Fred Hollows Foundation and volunteered in Timor L’Este.

“I chose the profession of optometry to help people, and my early career speaks to that in the communities I have provided eye healthcare, either voluntarily or in paid employment,” Smith says.

As his family commitments grew and travelling in pursuit of diverse work experiences became challenging, Smith settled in Melbourne, but knew he wanted to do more than clinical practise.

“That was my motivation to get involved in the peak professional body of optometry and really be part of progressing the profession and ensuring the Australian community has access to quality eye healthcare.”

Smith’s involvement began in 2013 as a board director of Optometry Victoria, then as Optometry Victoria president from 2016 to 2018, leading up to the amalgamation of Optometry Victoria and Optometry South Australia in 2019.

He joined the national Optometry Australia board in 2019 and served as vice-president under immediate past president Mr Darrell Baker for two years prior to becoming president.

“I believe that organisations need continual renewal and fresh input to thrive and progress. To that end, I believe strongly, aligned with current governance thinking, that directors should be on boards for a limited time, between six to nine years. And that’s in my plan,” Smith says.

Despite the competing challenges inherent in the role of president, Smith says he keeps members’ interests front and centre.

“I never waiver from the fact that our members come first, and that Optometry Australia is creating value for them. This is in the DNA of every OA director and every member of OA’s operational team,” Smith says.

“When it gets tough, I ask myself ‘is this in the best interests of our members?’ ‘Is this in the best interests of the profession?’ The answer must absolutely always be ‘yes’.”

Murray Smith’s optometry journey has taken him to Kimbe, West New Britain, in Papua New Guinea, where he has performed voluntary work.

Key priorities

Thus, it comes as no surprise that Smith’s highest priority is creating value for members, which he says can be achieved through delivering on the goals within the organisation’s shared (at national and state level) Strategic Plan.

“The Strategic Plan encompasses my priorities of building leadership and governance skills across the profession, ensuring that the OA board reflects the diversity of our profession, that we evolve scope and mitigate the vast issues around patient access to tertiary eyecare,” he says.

“Climate health is also on our agenda, with the growing body of evidence of the impact of climate on our health and wellbeing. Critically we need to ensure that OA, and the organisation more broadly, is ‘fit for purpose’.”

Smith is taking the baton on high-profile issues his predecessor raised during his tenure. Immediate past president Darrell Baker made it clear before departing that optometrists in Australia are “underutilised” and could help solve some longstanding issues if allowed to work at their full scope.

“This is a message we have been sending strongly to our federal representatives in the lead up to the federal election, and we are pleased to have our members supporting us in making this point heard through their local advocacy,” Smith says.

“Our state organisations have also been progressing various opportunities to ensure the skills of optometrists are most effectively used in state health systems and local care pathways.”

The organisation will soon launch a resource to support optometrists looking to extend their glaucoma practice and provide more collaborative care with ophthalmologists.

But Smith believes more can be done.

“We have a highly-skilled optometry workforce that we could be utilising more effectively to ensure patients get timely, affordable access to eyecare, and to reduce the pressure on our over-burdened public eye health system,” he says.

“I will continue to push to see the better utilisation of optometrists across our health system and for the scope of optometry practice to evolve to meet the changing eye health needs of Australian communities.”

One area OA has been vocal about is the potential for a greater optometric role in intravitreal injection clinics and prescribing of oral therapeutics.

“Across many areas of Australia, we have a significant access issue for patients requiring regular intravitreal injections. We need to look closely at how we can adapt our systems to improve access efficiently and effectively,” Smith says.

“We believe that better utilisation of our skilled, and well-distributed, optometry workforce can be a part of a system that better meets more patients’ needs.

“Optometrists and ophthalmologists are both motivated by supporting patients to get the eyecare they need. We hope by prioritising patient need, our professions can work together in developing solutions.”

Maximising every dollar

Smith believes succeeding in achieving the organisation’s highest priorities is dependent on an organisational structure that can execute the strategy in the most effective and resource-efficient way.

“We need to maximise every dollar that members contribute. The one constant is the challenge of funding within a federated structure. There are historical documents in the organisation’s archives from 60 and 70 years ago that are equally as relevant in reflecting the situation we face today,” Smith says.

“Optometry is a small profession and we don’t have the large pool other associations have to draw on in terms of membership. The challenge decades ago and today is how do we fund services, support and, importantly, innovate to continually progress in an environment when we have six organisations within the federation, trying to work with scarce resources.”

Optometry Australia, the national body, receives a portion of its income from the five state organisations, under a constitutional fee agreement. In addition to these funds, OA contributes substantial money raised from external sources and non-member revenue.

“The first thing we do is pay private indemnity insurance for every one of our members, which equates to 85% of the profession. The rest is distributed across our four strategic pillars; Lead, Engage, Promote and Endure,” Smith explains.

“Thirty per cent goes to Lead which future-proofs the profession through initiatives including advocacy to government, the health sector and evolving scope.

“Forty per cent is spent on Engage activities and is all about members, CPD, advisory services, practice support and keeping members up-to-date. Fifteen per cent goes towards Promote and covers raising awareness of the value of optometry in health and wellbeing through our consumer campaign ‘Good vision for life’ and extensive promotion and activities with other health professionals.

“The remaining 15% of our funds are committed to making it all happen. Under the pillar of Endure we focus on quality governance, executing all our plans and ensuring the organisation is sustainable and progressive. One dollar spent by OA supports and benefits more than 5,000 optometrists, creating exceptional value as we can work at scale. This is part of maximising scarce dollars, though there is more we can do collectively across our six organisations,” Smith says.

Smith, who took up his post as president in November 2021, can serve a maximum of three one-year terms in which he plans to address some of the profession’s major challenges.

“The last two and a half years have been a powerful reminder about the challenges of assuming we know what is just around the corner. That said, I think over the coming period optometry will need to embrace the challenges posed by the changing eye health needs of our communities, particularly those posed by an ageing population, increased prevalence of diabetes and increasing rates of myopia,” he says.

“As a profession, I also expect we will be challenged as we try to support the ongoing evolution of our profession. Resistance to change is inevitable. This should not take away our resolve to support our profession to develop so we can provide the eyecare our communities need.”

More reading

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Optometry Australia calls for $22.6m over five years to improve access to eyecare

Structural reform remains on Optometry Australia agenda as president steps down

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