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Relief as Optometry Australia issues service provision update

Optometry practices that were mothballed or reduced to urgent care at the peak of the COVID-19 emergency are returning to provide the full suite of services this week, following updated guidance from Optometry Australia (OA).

The peak industry body sought clarification from health officials on Friday after the Federal Government announced a staged easing of restrictions, which would likely occur at different speeds for each state and territory.

Following the Department of Health’s advice, OA stated: “We interpret this to mean that, provided you are according with the relevant restrictions for the state and territory, and implementing stringent infection control, optometrists can begin providing the standard suite of optometric services.”

OA CEO Ms Lyn Brodie told Insight that she understood many practices, who may have been closed or providing only urgent care, are moving to offer their patients the range of services they typically offer.

“We expect, unless pandemic conditions change, that more will continue to do so over the coming weeks,” she said.

Brodie noted there had not been specific mandates from any Australian Government regarding what healthcare services optometrists can provide.

In all jurisdictions, she said optometrists can use their clinical judgement and offer clinically necessary care, and are expected to do so with strong infection control measures in place.

“We understand that as of 12 May there is no jurisdiction with restrictions that prevent practices with a retail arm also offering this option for patients, provided social distancing and infection control requirements are appropriately addressed.”

Brodie added: “I think it’s fair to say that there is relief across the sector that pandemic restrictions are easing and that they can return to providing all the primary eye and vision care services that their communities need.

“There are, however, as there is with many professions, many optometrists who have been personally impacted by the pandemic and suffering financial loss at a business or personal level. Our thoughts are with these colleagues, and we are hopeful that the sector as a whole can bounce back relatively quickly.”

Caution urged

Further, OA reminded optometrists that social distancing requirements remain in place, which has implications for how many people are in a waiting room or retail space at a time, as well as their proximity to one another.

This includes compliance with the ‘four square metre rule’, in which retail operators must allow entry to no more than one person for every four-square-metres of available floor space in their shop. For example, if a shop has a total floorspace of 20 square metres, then no more than five people (including staff) can be in that premises at the same time.

Effective patient triage also continues to be important, and patients should be asked a range of questions. Potentially infectious patients should not be seen face-to-face except in emergency circumstances where appropriate personal protective equipment is employed.

“Consideration should also be given to the specific vulnerability or concerns of the patient about infection risk. It may be appropriate to offer telehealth services to vulnerable patients,” OA stated.

“We believe telehealth remains an important avenue for ensuring that vulnerable patients, or those who may have been exposed to the virus, can access the eyecare they need. We encourage practices to offer tele-optometry to these patients.”

Without a Medicare rebate yet, however, OA is advising optometrists to charge an appropriate fee for telehealth services.

Government’s three-step plan

For each of the major areas of restrictions the Federal Government has set out three key steps between the country’s current position and where it wants to be:

  • Step 1 will focus on carefully reopening the economy, and giving Australians opportunities to return to work and social activities, including gatherings of up to 10 people, up to 5 visitors in the family home and some local and regional travel.
  • Step 2 builds on this with gatherings of up to 20, and more businesses reopening, including gyms, beauty services and entertainment venues like galleries and cinemas.
  • Step 3 will see a transition to COVID safe ways of living and working, with gatherings of up to 100 people permitted. Arrangements under step 3 will be the ‘new normal’ while the virus remains a threat. International travel and mass gatherings over 100 people will remain restricted.

Jurisdictions may ease restrictions at a different pace. Individuals and business should look to local authorities for the most up to date information, or visit  this website  to be linked to state and territory resources.