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By: Anna Cheng

In a previous opinion about online eye care being in its infancy , we discussed eye care being a crucial service of the Eyewear industry on the whole. Despite this, there is a distinct lack of awareness of the importance of eye care globally. For example, accessibility to eye care in emerging markets is still lacking, either due to a lack of eye care practitioners or a lack of consumer knowledge. In developed countries meanwhile, despite industry players focusing on eye care over the years, with many changes and improvements being made as discussed in previous opinion on eyewear dispensing going digital and contact lenses moving away from Silicone consumers’ knowledge has not improved. And due to a lack of awareness and knowledge, consumers are often taken advantage of; for example, paying for improved products without knowing what the improvements are. In this opinion, I will look into the gap between the eye care practitioner and consumer knowledge of eye care, using the eyewear industry in Singapore as an example.

Population per certified optician in 2015

population per certified optician

Note: Based on 32 countries

Singapore is a good example of a developed country with a stable supply of eye care practitioners. Improvements are also being made here, but consumers’ involvement levels are still in their infancy. For example, the Ministry of Health set up the Optometrists and Opticians Board (OOB) to regulate practitioners; as a result, consumers are assured that they are being attended to by a trained professional, but, at the same time, consumer awareness and knowledge have not improved and involvement has not increased. For example, consumers’ involvement in smartphones is very high whereby the consumer understands the differences between the latest model and the previous model, while for eyewear, consumers rely entirely on the eyecare practitioner.

Understanding the various roles

In the eyewear industry in Singapore, ophthalmologist, optometrist and optician are three important roles that should complement each other and help the industry evolve and improve. Traditionally, there are mainly opticians in the country, working alongside a small number of optometrists who are trained overseas. As the industry has matured, contact lenses have started entering the market, which has meant there is a clear need for more trained practitioners, resulting in some opticians completing courses to learn how to fit them.

Optician training used to be a mentor/apprentice relationship; now, however, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) offers National ITE Certification (Nitec) in Opticianry to train opticians. Optometrist training started in 1994, with students undergoing three years of full-time studies to earn a diploma in optometry. They are trained to detect eye diseases and perform eye health checks and fit contact lenses as well as dispense eyewear. Today, Singapore Polytechnic and Ngee Ann Polytechnic also train new optometrists every year. Ophthalmologists, put in simple terms, are doctors who have specialised in treating eye diseases and any other eye-related issues. They are capable of providing the same services as optometrists, but at a higher price tag.

Clearly, the industry has made improvements over the years to bring it up to a higher standard. The main issue though is the complicated service offered by the practitioner; consumers entering an optical shop do not know if the person attending to him/her is an optician or optometrist and what is within his/her job description.

Understanding the service provided

An ageing population and a high prevalence of myopia are big issues in Singapore. As a result, the need for healthcare and eye care is increasing, meaning that waiting times at state hospitals are increasing as well. High instances of myopia also put people at higher risk of having more complicated eye conditions. To ease this, the optometrist plays a vital role in providing an affordable primary eye care service to the public, with many health diseases being able to be detected through a full eye examination. Not only does using the services of an optometrist cost the patient less, it also allows hospitals to focus on more serious eye conditions, which are referred to ophthalmologists. Whilst optometrists focus on providing primary eye care, opticians complement their services by providing vision tests and satisfying dispensing needs.

Consumers are not trained to read a prescription and needless to say, understand the difference between an eye test and refraction. Consumers are unaware if the test performed prior to them being given their prescription was a comprehensive eye test or a refraction/vision test; all the consumer understands is that he/she has a vision problem and is visiting the optical shop to fix this. If a new pair of glasses solves the problem, the consumer will not worry further. The person attending to this is a professional; therefore, the consumer can rely on the practitioner to give advice. If the practitioner does not ask any probing questions, the consumer assumes everything is okay.

Creating awareness and targeting it right

Consumers are unlikely to gain knowledge or awareness by themselves. Therefore, it is the role of people working in the industry, suppliers, the government, associations and even individual eye care practitioners to play a part in creating awareness of eye care and sending out the right message on eyecare. Understanding how to reach the consumer is a way to bridge this gap in the lack of knowledge. For example, the strategy employed by the optical retail chain Owndays has been very successful in generating interest among younger consumers. In fact, the fast turnaround time business model used by Owndays is not new in Singapore; it was just not being marketed in the past. What makes this model successful this time round is targeting the right audience with the right tool, ie creating an environment where making glasses is fun, convenient, fast and affordable. As a result, this has raised consumer awareness of the industry and, at the same time, cut out a bigger pie, drawing stronger involvement from the youth.

In my opinion, the same should be done to promote awareness of eye care, creating excitement and interest to raise awareness and involvement. There should be a focus on promoting the importance of regular eye care by an optometrist and stressing how this is more convenient and affordable than visiting an ophthalmologist when there is a bigger issue, instead of focusing on the role of the individual practitioner. For example, optometrists should be being proactive by asking consumers who step into their practice if they have had a comprehensive eye test in the past year, introduce, emphasise and at the same time increase consumers’ awareness of eyecare, instead of assuming they understand what a comprehensive eye test comprises.

As mentioned in a previous opinion on Optometric Community Battles against Online Eye Examinations, any product or service, if indiscriminately marketed to the masses, undermines the need for a trained eye care professional, in turn, causing more damage than good to the wider society. Unlike other mature markets such as the US, the UK and Australia, the eyewear industry in Singapore is still emerging; where changes are happening, industry players must adapt, embrace the changes and work together. As the optical industry evolves, it is inevitable that competition will increase and an influx of different business models is likely to appear; managing change and welcoming competition is the only way to move the industry on to its next level.

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