Bringing our Ophthalmic branch into focus

13 April 2022

Rohil Goutam of Prospect’s Ophthalmic branch talks about the work of his profession, the challenges and opportunities they face and how he has found being a part of the wider Prospect family.

Prospect’s diverse membership encompasses engineers in energy and aviation; experts in heritage and education; scientists in defence and conservation. We are a broad church and that is one of our greatest strengths.

But did you know that we also are also the trade union for optometrists?

Our Ophthalmic Branch is relatively new, having just been established in the summer of 2020 but it is already 400-strong and there are plans afoot among its senior reps to grow further. Rohil Goutam tells us more.

People will be familiar with opticians because of eye tests and wearing glasses, but what is an optometrist?

Rohil Goutam

The easiest explanation is that optometrists deal more with clinical concerns and are responsible for the health of patient’s eyes, as well as their spectacles.

In the south London practice where I work, we have a scheme with the local Clinical Commissioning Group and patients can self-present, or be referred in, for a multitude of issues, such as dry eyes, painful eyes, or glaucoma, which is an irreversible eye condition that can lead to blindness if not treated.

As a result, the patients I see are more clinical and because of that I work closely with the local hospitals. I’m undertaking further professional qualifications too, such as independent prescribing, a first professional certificate in glaucoma and more.

You are a new branch within Prospect. What’s the history behind that?

We started as part of the Ophthalmic Practitioners Group, where a couple of people saw where the profession was going and wanted to do something about it.

It was very organic, using social media to raise awareness and bring more people together, like dispensing opticians and optometrists. What started from ground level up with one and two people has become nearly 400.

We were looking at different trade unions to see which one would be the best fit for us and be the most effective. Obviously, it was Prospect.

You’re all dispersed around the country and there’s not one common employer. How do you organise, recruit and keep in touch with each other?

The main thing is social media, especially Instagram, where we get messages and queries from members. We also have a LinkedIn profile, and use email.

Members can also communicate directly with Prospect full-time officer Arron Baker when they have issues. He travels around to different locations and practices too.

It was harder during the pandemic, but now that everything has started to clear up we are hoping to do in person events, such as 100% Optical between 23-25 April 2022 at London’s ExCeL Centre.

What are some of the common issues that your members are facing?

During the pandemic, a lot of it was around testing times and safety in the workplace. For a few others, pay is also a big issue which I know is widespread, not just in our industry.

A base clinic is where you have your normal day of 18-19 patients. Then, the retail staff might add an extra clinic with another 15 patients. Or they’ll have walk-ins, which you must see too.

You’re seeing more and more patients and putting yourself under great stress. Many colleagues are regularly working through lunchbreaks every single day; it’s not a once-a-week thing.

How bad is it getting?

I have met quite a few colleagues who have quit, either temporarily or permanently and just moved to a different profession. It’s no longer worth it for their mental health.

I’ve heard of others who have quit because the working conditions are not safe and others who have dropped out to become locums and are working just one or two days a week.

It’s sad to see because I love what I do, and I love my role, but I understand that my experience is not typical because I have more clinical referrals. It’s slightly more privileged.

What do you hope to offer your members?

If we can get a few hundred more members we can then offer indemnity insurance, which will be a big benefit.

Right now, there are a couple of providers but it’s still several hundred pounds and as much as £700.

I know a pharmacist who has paid just £250-300 for his annual insurance. That’s a huge difference with what we pay. Pharmacists can give you the wrong drug, or wrong dosage, that could kill you!

So, indemnity insurance, which we hope to offer at a reasonable price, is the big one in terms of what we want to provide for members.

What’s the plan for the branch to grow over the next couple of years?

More in-person events, such as 100% Optical, which I mentioned earlier.

Last year we did a Scottish event virtually and that was good for communicating with our members and also with potential members. It was fun because they could ask us questions, and we could ask them questions and engage with what their views are.

We want to host our own events too. The idea is to provide a pot of money for reps to host their own events where colleagues can socialise and get to know one another.

Training is also an important area for you, isn’t it?

Continuous Professional Development is a requirement of our profession to maintain our licenses.

As things get back to normal, we can hold different training events all around the country, where members and non-members can meet. They can learn more about the trade union, but also get their CPD points, without which they will get struck off the professional register.

How have you found being in Prospect and being part of a wider union?

There are two sides to that. One is being with the union’s leadership team, learning about how the union works, what they do and how we do it.

Training has been provided for different courses, such as public speaking and you get to know more about the legality of things.

Obviously, you can do all these things by yourself but it’s good to have it as part of a group, where everyone has the same mindset and are facing similar issues. It helps you remember that you’re not alone.

On a personal note, I’ve had to use the services of the union myself and to know that you’ve got someone that you can turn to, who is knowledgeable and helpful is terrific. Having that backing, resource and support is immense.