The general public are split on the benefits of using machines to replace optometrists in delivering sight tests, according to the General Optical Council’s (GOC) latest public perceptions survey.
In the GOC’s latest annual survey, members of the public were asked about scenarios which may occur in the future in which machines and automation play a greater role in testing sight. The survey found that 48 per cent of respondents would be uncomfortable having a sight test conducted by a machine without an optician present but 43 per cent would be comfortable. The research found a noticeable demographic split with 55 per cent of those aged 16-34 being comfortable with no optician present whilst only 23 per cent of those aged 75+ being comfortable.
GOC chief executive and registrar, Vicky McDermott, said, “Optometry is one of the healthcare professions most challenged by the introduction of automation and Artificial Intelligence. This research shows that a large proportion of the public do not see significant issues with machines taking over some of the tasks of optical professionals. Others part of the population are not comfortable with the possible reduction in human interaction which automation may bring. Any transition towards a more automated future in the delivery of eye care therefore needs to be handled very carefully, particularly with an ageing population who have more complex needs and who are less likely to be comfortable with less human interaction. Where automation does replace the work currently undertaken by an optician this has the potential to free up the optician’s time to allow them to focus on managing more complex eye care conditions. We will continue to monitor technological developments in the eye care sector to identify any potential risks of harms to patients and the public.”
Other findings in the research included:
95 per cent of people were happy with their overall experience of visiting their optician.
24 per cent of people would visit their optician first if they woke up with an eye problem rather than their GP or an NHS hospital, an increase from 19 per cent in 2015. Respondents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were more likely to visit their optician first than those in England – this is a reflection of the changing role that opticians are playing in delivering primary care and the changes in eye care policy across the UK.
People remain more likely to consider themselves a customer (39 per cent) than a patient (29 per cent) when they visit their optician (29 per cent consider themselves to be both) which is an indication that the public see their high street optician as part retailer, part healthcare provider.
The GOC also held a focus group with glaucoma patients as part of the research. The group had some concerns about the idea of their condition being managed in the community by optometrists instead of in a hospital setting. Concerns included doubts about optometrists’ ability to carry out complex work, about the equipment available in high street clinics and about optometrists’ qualifications.
Vicky McDermott, said: “Although this was only one focus group, it showed that in order for patients to have full confidence in the delivery of NHS eye care services in the community, the professions must do more to educate patients about their skills and competence and to engage with them when changing how eye care services are delivered. The GOC is currently reviewing the system of education and training for optical professionals to ensure that they are equipped for the roles of the future and that public protection is maintained.”
The research carried out by the independent research company Enventure Research took the form of an online survey of 3,025 members of the public in June and July 2017. Additional focus groups and in-depth interviews took place with glaucoma patients and with members of the general public to better understand their views about the introduction and use of automated technology in the delivery of eye care.