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WA optometry school fuels supply debate

Australia’s largest optical chains have backed the establishment of Western Australia’s first Doctor of Optometry degree, believing it will alleviate an escalating shortage of optometrists and reduce a reliance on the graduate supply from eastern states.

Optometry Australia (OA), however, has expressed disappointment in the program planned for next year with an initial intake of up to 60 graduates. The association lobbied the university to rethink its decision, stating it could fuel an oversupply of optometrists and potentially impact future employment prospects for many.

To be delivered at the University of Western Australia (UWA), the new three-year postgraduate program will be led by Professor Garry Fitzpatrick.

It is the first and only course of its kind in WA and students will gain experience through clinical placements with industry partners, including the Lions Eye Institute and Lions Outback Vision, Specsavers and Luxottica across metropolitan, regional and remote areas of WA.

UWA will become the seventh Australian university to offer an optometry course, reigniting debate between some optometry providers and OA about future optometry workforce supply in Australia.

More reading: First Doctor of Optometry course announced for WA

Mr Paul Bott, executive director and general manager of optics at Specsavers, said until now, WA employers have recruited from optometry schools in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Auckland.

“The new course will help to alleviate the serious and growing shortage of optometrists generally, and in WA that means employers will no longer have to rely entirely on the eastern states’ graduate supply, providing a balancing effect to the whole country and New Zealand,” he said.

Eighteen months ago, Specsavers commissioned Deloitte Access Economics (DAE) to examine the national supply and demand for optometrists.

“They came back with a comprehensive report looking out to 2037 which forecasts a shortage of some 1,200 optometrists [in Australia],” Bott said. “This was predominantly due to an ageing population, a larger total population and increased corresponding demand for services.”

According to Bott, many optometry employers are finding it harder to recruit optometrists from a limited pool, despite an increasing number of graduates.

“I remember the new optometry course at Deakin in 2011 being met by dire warnings about the potential for unemployed graduates and lower salary packages, whereas in reality Deakin graduates are snapped up before they graduate and salaries have continued to rise in all parts of the country.

“For example, the starting salary we now pay for a newly graduating optometrist in regional areas is $85,000 plus super and we also need to add a $10,000 to $20,000 sign-on bonus with a
further $5,000 in relocation allowances.

“It’s our understanding this is one of the highest starting salaries for any health-related field in Australia, including graduating doctors and dentists.”

Luxottica director of eyecare and community for Australia and New Zealand Mr Peter Murphy said the new program will ensure the eyecare needs of Western Australians are properly addressed.

“Demographic trends point to an aging population and with an increase in chronic eye health conditions such as diabetes, macular degeneration and glaucoma we are seeing first hand an increase in demand for eye health professionals across the country, especially in regional and remote areas across Australia and New Zealand.”

Oversupply concerns

OA president and Western Australia optometrist Mr Darrell Baker said a key concern among the association’s members was that the profession is fast tracking toward an oversupply.

“Despite a recent report that there is an undersupply of optometrists in the foreseeable future, our research and key workforce indicators clearly indicate the opposite,” he said.

“We stressed the expected oversupply of optometrists in Australia and called on the university to take this into consideration before making its decision. We asked them to think of the future of the profession and of the students they hoped to enrol.”

Baker did note that, at present, all WA-based based optometrists have to complete their studies at eastern-based universities and the university wanted to offer courses to help residents achieve their career aspirations locally.

“Although we appreciate this sentiment we remain very concerned about supply within optometry and that we are producing a workforce of highly-skilled practitioners where a fair proportion may not be able to find employment,” he said.

OA has launched a campaign calling on the Commonwealth to amend university funding approaches to require consideration of community need for specific disciplines. It also recently contacted the Federal Minister for Education Mr Dan Tehan to outline its concerns.

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