Optometry in a pandemic – Satvinder Soomal

At first, when I began in this new world of practising optometry in a pandemic, dressed in full PPE in an otherwise closed store, I was nervous getting ready for work. The journey to the practice seemed like a Sunday, as no one is around. But the heroes who work in the supermarkets are there and being tested more than they are over any Christmas period. You respect their endeavours as they stock the shelves and panic-buying kicks in. You see the postal and delivery drivers and you admire their commitment.

You arrive into work early and start looking through your patient list. You get ready. Elbows bare, no tie, face mask on and gloves. I feel as if I’m back working in the eye hospital. But this is different – this feels more of a threat.

Innovation kicks in. You design slit lamp shields. You adapt your history-taking, doing as much as you can over the phone. When the patient enters the test room you ask them to sit on the spare chair you have placed in the opposite corner of the room. You only invite them to the testing chair for ocular examination and refraction. No longer do you do a running commentary as you examine the patient – something I always promoted to my pre-reg colleagues.

The days go by and we are advised to cease routine eye examinations and offer urgent and essential care only. It is almost a relief.

You have lengthy discussions with each team member to find out how they are feeling. Your explanation that we must make changes to the business in order to have a business to return to is met with sympathy and understanding. We feel the responsibility to our work colleagues as we discuss furlough, but it is made easier by knowing that we are doing the best we can for each individual.

And now we are down to minimal support staff in the practice. We focus on every call and query that comes in, from broken specs, contact lens supply, hearing aid concerns, to eye health-related issues. All triaging is done within tight guidelines and most concerns are handled over the phone. When patients need to come in with potential retinal detachments or are referred by their GP for headaches, pain, red eyes and other minor eye conditions, we are ready. Nervous but ready. We are now a small team of four – we call ourselves the fantastic four. We support each other every step of the way, in every interaction we have.

Returning home, the streets are empty, the roads are quiet, the sky is clear, and you can hear the birds tweet, or is that one of your friends tweeting how bored they are stuck at home?

You get home, you strip off at the back door – making sure the neighbours do not see you. Everything goes into a suit bag. Your wife struggles to keep your four- and two-year-old away, while you run upstairs to wash the day away. Breathe. And then family time – conscious you should try and keep a distance from the family for the rest of the evening ‘just in case’.

You reflect on the day and try not to look at the news or social media, but curiosity gets the better of you and you read it all, subdued that this virus is so lethal and so disruptive.

In these circumstances all we can do is provide the best care we can in the safest way we can. Manage patients over the phone or triage by video and if we must see the patient, only do so with the correct PPE in place, ensuring their safety, our safety and that of our team’s.

The support and advice I’ve received from Specsavers, and from the College, GOC, AOP and Government has been invaluable. My fellow ophthalmic director Daljit Purewal has shown great support and leadership throughout this pandemic. It is thanks to the leadership we have across our business that we can be ‘open for care’ for the customers who need urgent or essential care.

Our roles are more important than ever. Being there to help the public in their hour of need, as they worry about their eye health or about not being able to see without their specs or contact lenses or hear without their hearing aids. If not now – when they need us the most – where will they go in the future?

I wish you all the very best in these unprecedented times. Focus on the reason you entered this profession – we can make a difference. Have good support around you: your business partner, your trusted colleagues, your Group and your profession.

Keep communication and support channels open. Stay safe.

This article first appeared in Optician maagzine.

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