It feels like many moons ago when the government announced New Zealand was going into lockdown and Menicare was flying off the shelves like toilet paper.
When the first list of essential services was announced, with one of them being “primary healthcare”, optometrists weren’t too sure what that meant for our profession. Are we primary healthcare workers? We called up the Ministry of Health (MoH) to ask.
“Sorry, I’m not sure,” said the lady on the other end of the line. Bugger!
Optometry is in the unfortunate position of being a job that’s not easily done at home, leaving many of us with unanswered and worrying questions. One optometrist colleague, who didn’t wish to be named, admitted to breaking out in hives from all the stress and uncertainty; a grave example of the effect this unprecedented time was causing.
However, things quickly began to settle down and even brighten once official guidelines from the Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians Board (ODOB) and New Zealand Association of Optometrists (NZAO)* were released and the nationwide lockdown began. We weren’t an essential service, except for emergency cases, so many of us found ourselves with a lot more time on our hands. This we spent with our families, video calling old classmates, picking up hobbies and getting in touch with our creative side. Hamilton-based optometrist and writer Yasmeen Musa enjoyed her time off by creating and publishing her first set of podcasts, Write with me, on Spotify where she deconstructed words and poems.
As the lockdown continued and the days started to blur, Auckland University School of Optometry and Vision Science teaching fellow and optometrist Jason Dhana reminded us why it was so important to stay home with his graph of Covid-19 cases in New Zealand, which he updated daily on social media. Alongside spending time perfecting recipes and exercising at home, he said he started the graph initially for himself but decided to share it as, “it captured the situation as opposed to a whole lot of daily numbers that people forget”. This quickly became a resource for those of us who wanted to get straight to the figures, plus it also featured some adorable monkeys and skiers sliding down the slopes, making it an instant hit with many of Jason’s colleagues, myself included. “More and more people started to thank me, so it became a mini project which I am now doing for my friends instead of for myself,” he said, adding that many even came straight to his graph at 1pm rather than watching the daily 1pm MoH briefing!
With conferences cancelled, more resources for online CPD points and webinars were made available to help optometrists stay updated with the latest developments within the eye health world, plus more ophthalmic responses and guidelines for Covid-19. The ODOB was even kind enough to push back recertification by 12 months for optometrists and dispensing opticians, easing the stress of achieving required CPD points (thank you ODOB!).
Some optometrists hosted telecommunication consultations from home once the essential services list was updated, including Nick Mathew, optometrist and clinic director at Re:Vision. “Consulting with patients over the phone is an interesting challenge,” he said. “It’s a form of triage, as it’s very rare to diagnose anything in ophthalmology without a physical examination or scan.” Having an online booking system and keeping normal lines of communication open for patients and referrals made the transition easier, he said, adding, if anything, sending prescriptions to pharmacies has now been simplified as hard copies are no longer required.
This new telemonitoring world didn’t come without its challenges, however. “Sometimes patients can describe their symptoms very well and the decision on the urgency of care is easy,” said Nick. “Some are a little more challenging, but a good history is key to making sensible clinical judgements.” He emphasized the importance of still reviewing patients and making sure they have multiple ways to reach you if things worsen. The efforts have been worth it though “patients have been very appreciative of the level of care provided,” he said.
Looking back, while the initial response to the lockdown started off rocky, it’s been truly wonderful to see the profession band together during such an unexpected and challenging time, from creating easier ways to access clinical education to finding more time to explore our creative sides, and even taking on alternative routes for patient consultations.
As for the first things we’ll be doing after lockdown? Yasmeen said she’ll be buying a cappuccino; Jason will be heading back to the gym; and Nick will be aiding his team seeing postponed patients – something we’re probably all looking forward to after this break.
Simran Kaur is an optometrist at Paterson Burn and last year’s New Zealand Optometry Student Society president