Specsavers Graduate Recruitment team explains how they are supporting students and working to mitigate the effect of the COVID pandemic on optometry training and placements.
The responses below are part of a recent feature published in OT, which also included contributions from the College of Optometrists, AOP, universities and other employers.
Paul Morris, Specsavers Director of Professional Advancement:
“As with all the healthcare professions, COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges and changes to optometry – and a lot of uncertainty for our student population. It’s also shown just what an essential clinical service we, as optometrists, provide.
“As we regain a ‘new normal’, our approach to reinvigorating our pre-registration programme will be the same as we’ve adopted throughout this crisis – to keep colleagues and customers safe, to keep in regular contact, to be honest and open, and to share new information as we know it.
“Just as we have a duty of care to our customers, we feel a huge sense of responsibility to our incoming and existing pre-registration optometrists and will provide greater clarity and reassurance as soon as we know what is planned for this year’s Scheme for Registration.”
Victoria Taylor, Specsavers Head of graduate recruitment and retention UK & ROI:
What would be your key message to pre-registration students who may be furloughed or who have found the beginning of their pre-reg journey delayed due to the current outbreak?
First and foremost, we understand how worrying this period is for everyone – and we are here to support students. We have a dedicated pre-registration support team fielding calls and queries from students and stores every day, sharing information as it becomes available to us, and providing online learning materials for student and pre-reg optometrists at every level.
In recent weeks, the primary focus for all of our stores and our partners has, understandably, been prioritising our customers whilst we have been open for essential and emergency care only.
However, our commitment to providing the highest number of pre-registration placements in the industry is unwavering. We talk to the College on a weekly basis and we share the same goal of wanting to ensure that, despite current challenges, we can offer as many placements as possible.
Ultimately, we do need to wait for the College to release the confirmed details of the new Scheme before we can move forwards. For those still looking for a placement, we will be updating our list of live vacancies shortly and sending those out.
What advice would you give students worried about their future?
Keep on learning, if you can. We have released a series of optional distance-learning materials for our furloughed student to access at their leisure to encourage their personal development whilst on furlough leave. We have also shared video messages and podcasts from our Director of Professional Advancement, Paul Morris, as well as links to well-being materials.
Once we are back serving the public with a wider range of services, and teams return from furlough, things will begin to seem a little more “normal” again. We are ensuring that any team member returning from furlough is fully trained on PPE use and our new customer journey, and there is a lot of support available.
For final year students, my message is to say thank you for your patience – we are working with the College to ensure that there is a safe welcome to stores for all of our new pre-registration optometrists and that the requirements of the Scheme are adequately met.
The other important thing is to stay in touch – with the latest guidelines from the professional bodies, with your future employer, and with your peers. At Specsavers, for example, we have an online network for optometrists, including pre-registration students, where practitioners have been posing clinical questions and sharing experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.
At present, how many of your pre-registration students are on furlough? If the situation persists, how long do you anticipate they may remain on furlough for?
Around 90% of our pre-registration optometrists were furloughed. Whilst open for emergency and essential care only, the majority of our stores have been attended and operated by the store directors with a small number of team members to deliver the required customer care.
How long a team member remains on furlough will be different for each store and is likely to depend, short-term, on how many team members are able to be in store given the social distancing guidelines. In the meantime, we will continue to share optional learning material with them to ensure that they are able to stay connected with their development.
What steps have you considered to bring the students back into practice and how have you worked with the College to consider how the requirements of the Scheme will be met?
We have been working with the College since the start of the pandemic and continue to do so. Our next step is contributing to a working party to support the design of the new Scheme that navigates the practical challenges of delivering a rigorous pre-registration period which gives the pre-registration optometrist the best experience.
We have also reached out to every Specsavers store with an incoming pre-registration optometrist to discuss any challenges or concerns they might have. Finally, we are also reviewing our internal programme materials to ensure that they are fit for purpose in a post-COVID-19 world.
What procedures or support is in place to ensure graduating students aren’t at a disadvantage in the current circumstances?
We have support teams across Specsavers answering all clinical queries regarding pre-registration optometrists and we are sharing the College communications, including OSCE dates.
Pre-registration optometrists returning to store from furlough will be given exactly the same training and re-introduction to working in their store as their qualified practitioner colleagues.
Considering the next intake of pre-registration optometrists, will it be up to the employer to delay the intake or will it be the College’s decision. When can students expect to hear about pre-registration dates or graduate schemes and will Specsavers still run regular induction courses?
We need to wait for the College to announce the details of the new Scheme, including supervision and competency requirements, before we are able to progress. The College has already informed the current final year students that a delay to the start to the Scheme will be inevitable. For each individual, the start dates will vary depending on the store circumstances; some stores have indicated that they would like their pre-reg optometrist in practice as soon as possible, whereas others face bigger challenges accommodating team members in a socially distanced way and they may require a joiner later.
For our internal programme, we have already switched all of our courses online, and we will be running multiple inductions in this way.
How will Specsavers make reasonable adjustments for pre-regs where you may have to limit the time spent with each patient or adapt the practice environment, if social distancing requirements remain in force?
Each individual store has a plan for return to delivering wider services and all businesses have been working hard to ensure that every space within the store is considered and that the customer journey is adapted to the guidelines.
What changes could be made to contracts with pre-registration optometrists in light of Government advice or changes to practice, for example, if the number of patients in practice has to be limited or the practice experiences a reduction in footfall?
Any changes to contracts will be done on a store-by-store basis with the individual and only where strictly necessary.
Do you anticipate you will be able to take on all your pre-reg students enrolled for this year as planned?
Once we have understood the College’s final position on the Scheme for Registration we will know more, but early indications are that the majority of stores are keen to continue with their offer of a placement. There will be a small number of stores who, due to the new social distancing rules, are simply unable to accommodate a pre-registration optometrist. In those cases, the pre-registration support team will work with the individual to find them another location.
As this year’s summer placements have been cancelled, will your criteria for the selection of pre-registration candidates change, and if so, could you share how you anticipate the criteria may change?
The great news is that any student who had a summer placement offer from us will have already attended a selection day and been allocated to a store. For any summer placement not already working in that store, we are looking at the best way to provide some time in practice before the end of the year, as a pre-cursor to their pre-registration placement. We are also launching a virtual pre-registration placement to ensure that the students have access to great materials to prepare them for their final year and pre-registration period.
How might this situation have an effect on current students who will be looking to complete work experience/summer placements in the year ahead?
I would leave any approach to a store until the autumn, until stores have adjusted to their new ways of working. After that, it will depend on an individual store’s capacity to offer a placement. All of our vacancies will continue to be advertised on our website join.specsavers.co.uk as well.
In the meantime, all students – wherever they work – can access the Optometry Essentials study guide, which will soon include a new set of accompanying multiple choice quizzes to test their knowledge.
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