Optometry Australia membership “Confidential”

Optometry Australia’s (OA) membership figure is shrouded in obscurity, with Insight unable to ascertain the organisation’s current tally after initially being told the information was ‘confidential’.

Instead of being transparent, OA claims it represents a percentage of the profession’s registered practitioners. At the time of publication, its website vaguely claims it represents “about 82.5 per cent of Australian optometrists”.

When Insight questioned why OA’s membership number is a secret, CEO Ms Lyn Brodie said, “Member numbers are not a secret – but a daily moving feast!”

Despite the denial, Brodie still refused to provide a specific membership figure.

“We take a conservative approach and once a year calculate, working on standard categories that are applicable to all states, and compare with a time in point with OBA [Optometry Board of Australia] data that comes out quarterly. It’s conservative, so likely to be more, but this way we keep it simple,” Brodie told Insight.

Brodie did not disclose the specific equation that led to the 82.5% figure.

OA’s 2017-2018 Annual Report details a wealth of statistical data about the profession (see below), including the number of optometry appointments, Medicare rebatable services, benefits paid, as well as the number of member emails, social media users and state conferences.

The report also details important member statistics, such as employment, age group and gender; however, nowhere does it provide a total membership figure.

Brodie admitted that OA does calculate a number annually for internal comparison: “We work our calculations post renewal period October, comparing back to OBA data in June”.

However, she would not provide the October 2018 figure claiming the membership number is ultimately meaningless.

“When I speak to Government or other stakeholders giving them a number is meaningless – what they want to know is the percentage of optometrists we represent. Even our members would find a number meaningless,” Brodie said.

She pointed to a number of issues in calculating a figure, including practitioners moving interstate and OA’s state divisions having different renewal dates, and went on to advise that readers might not understand the issue. I am not going to state a [membership] number from one day that has no relevance to today or tomorrow … and then keep my fingers crossed that your readers will understand the intricacies of determining a number,” Brodie said. Insight contacted a number of other medical and health related associations, including ophthalmic bodies, about their membership figures, and was readily provided the information (see chart below).

Of the 15 associations contacted, only OA chooses to be tight-lipped regarding its membership figure.

Analysing the moving feast

The most recent OBA registrant figures were published in May for the period 1 January 2019 to 31 March 2019. There are 5,771 currently registered optometrists in Australia split across the categories of ‘General’, ‘Limited’ (either postgraduate students or teachers) and ‘Non-practicing’. Excluding the 160 non-practicing practitioners, the profession’s current workforce is 5,611.

As per OA’s 82.5% figure, the organisation’s current member base can be estimated as 4,629 practitioners. However, OA’s claims also shift around.

According to the 2015-2016 annual report: “Eight in every 10 registered optometrists elected to take out membership” while in its 2014-2015 report, the membership percentage claim was higher: “90 – the percentage of Australia’s 4,951 optometrists who are members of Optometry Australia.”

While Brodie denied that the peak industry body’s exact membership figure is a secret, it appears that it has been five years since OA last placed its membership on the public record.The 2013-2014 report is the most recent to mention a specific membership tally, which was 4,300. Comparing that to the OBA’s June 2014 data listing 4,657 practitioners, excluding 131 non-practicing practitioners, OA’s members made up 92.3% of the profession’s workforce.

More reading » OA Annual Report 2017 – 2018

Brodie told Insight that the past practice of releasing member numbers did not serve as an accurate reflection of the organisation’s membership. “For me to provide a number – it wont be correct and I‘m not willing to provide something and be accused of providing incorrect information.

“I gather for all the reasons I have stated previously, it was decided that these numbers don’t tell the picture and therefore we get flack. Rather than do that we moved to percentages to ensure on any given day, someone can take the percentage and look at current OBA numbers and estimate membership numbers are X. Even stating 82.5% can cause some angst as some states are more like 95%.”

Ophthalmic & Health Organisations’ Mbership Number
RANZCO (excludes associates) 1,497
Australian Society of Ophthalmologists 550
Cornea and Contact Lens Society of Australia 616
Orthoptics Australia 563
Optometry Australia (OA) Classified
Dispensing Opticians’ Association (NSW/VIC) 330
Australian Dental Association 15,367
Australian Medical Association 44,970
Australian Osteopathy Association 3,030
Australian Physiotherapy Association 25,625
Australian Podiatry Association 2,678
Australian Psychology Association 24,059
Chiropractors Association of Australia 3,290
Occupational Therapy Australia 6,867
Australian College of General Practitioners 39,316

Of the above 15 health related not-for-profit organisations contacted, only OA refuses to divulge or place its mbership number on the public record.

Defining best practices Julie Garland McLellan, a leading governance consultant and professional company director, pointed to Australian Securities & Investments Commission regulations, Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission governance standards as well Australian Institute Company Directors guidelines for not-for-profit organisations, particularly principle 7.5 on accountability, as best practice.

“It is tempting [for an association] to stop reporting an indicator if it starts to show that performance is not improving however good governance is to give equal weight to news of equal importance for members in assessing the performance and prospects of their organisation.”

Garland McLellan also said it can be tempting to exaggerate member numbers to increase an organisation’s status.

“It is typical for large associations to state their member numbers in submissions and for smaller associations to mention the importance of their members to society rather than state the number of members they have. It is important for a board to draw a distinction between what they consider an appropriate strategy to engage an outside party and what they consider an appropriate response to an inquiry from a member,” she said.

Garland McLellan also added that directors could place themselves at risk if they are seen to be withholding information.

“Boards need to set an ethical tone for the organisation they govern. If the board condones withholding of information because it might indicate poor association performance, management is likely to be tempted to withhold information that might indicate poor management performance. Ultimately this places directors at great personal risk.”

Rather than membership figures being meaningless, Garland McLellan believes members have a right to understand the financial position and prospects of their association. “That means they can expect to know if membership is growing or declining.”

Optometry Australia is yet to release its 2018-19 annual report.

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