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Saturday / July 2.
HomemistoryInterview with Prof. Fiona Stapleton

Interview with Prof. Fiona Stapleton

Professor Fiona Stapleton broke new ground when she was appointed Head of the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of New South Wales in 2007. As the first female head of an optometry school in Australia, this quietly spoken lady, talks about her ambition to increase the recognition of eye care in education, community engagement and on government agendas.

Sitting in her office on level three of the Rupert Myers building, Prof. Fiona Stapleton states her aims softly, but matter-of-factly.

“I would like to see the University of New South Wales School take a premier position in delivering a comprehensive scientific and clinical education experience, outstanding research and excellent research education. The importance of eye care is increasingly being recognised and I would also like to see us help to maintain public health optometry and eye care priorities in Australia on government agendas.”

This British immigrant certainly has the credentials to do just that, graduating from University of Wales in Cardiff, and doing her masters at Manchester University and her doctorate at City University, London.

I would like to see the UNSW School take a premier position in delivering a comprehensive scientific and clinical education experience, outstanding research and excellent research education

“I had an academic position at Moorfields Eye Hospital and at City University in London. I came to Australia on a sabbatical in 1993 for a year in a research position and went home, but loved it here and returned,” she states simply and squarely.

Her research position was with the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Eye Research based at the University of New South Wales. It was here that she impressed with her work in epidemiology and pathogenesis of contact lens related disease, ocular microbiology, contact lens care systems, and ocular defence mechanisms.

Prof. Stephen Dain had been head of the school for eight years and his tenure was ending. Fiona Stapleton was one of the members of the school staff at that time, and one of a number of possible candidates for the job.

The Appointment

At the time of her appointment, Prof. Stapleton articulated her thoughts like this: “The UNSW School has tremendous strengths to be built upon. In particular, I believe that the School delivers a comprehensive scientific and clinical education experience provides excellent research education to significant numbers of higher degree students and delivers a unique coursework masters programme, as well as providing a high quality service to the community.”

“Strong research areas at UNSW include anterior segment and contact lenses; optics and applied vision; vision science; public health optometry and glaucoma and posterior segment.”

“The UNSW School has an excellent record in undergraduate education which will be further developed in the new five year programme, and close liaison with the profession will support our efforts in maintaining practical and leading-edge courses.

“Collaboration and linkages are another major strength of the School. It enjoys strong support from the ophthalmic industry and profession, and UNSW has strong international linkages, particularly in Asia, which we will build on.

“Staff at the School have developed effective collaborations between groups of researchers, industry groups, eye care professions, and with major clinical, eye research, education and public health organisations locally, nationally and internationally. One recent initiative has involved collaboration with the LV Prasad Eye Institute in India to develop a Masters in Community Eye Health programme.

“Of course the major strength of the School is the people. The academic staff is dedicated and outstanding in teaching and research. There are a hugely talented staff of optometrists, and general and visiting staff who have remained focused and committed to the task often despite a lack of resources.

“Through support of existing staff and recruitment of rising stars we will enhance the teaching and research performance of the School and develop the next generation of leaders in the field.”

Extended Course

Prof. Stapleton has already put her stamp on the School of Optometry, overseeing a move from a four-year program to a five-year program. “This whole process takes a couple of years to get under way. It actually started in 2004 with the first intake in 2006, so we have students who are currently moving into the fourth year of that five year program.

“This whole process takes a couple of years to get under way. It actually started in 2004 with the first intake in 2006, so we have students who are currently moving into the fourth year of that five year program. This is a double degree…a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Optometry.

“In parallel, there is a new vision science major in the BSc programme, which will graduate science and advanced science students with relevant skills in optics, vision science and instrumentation who will be able to move into the vision science sector…industry, research, lighting, instrumentation, optics. Also, students can transfer from vision science into optometry after the first year of study.” \

Prof. Stapleton says her graduates will have a strong foundation in science and because of the changes to the legislation in New South Wales, the programme now incorporates therapeutic management of ocular disease. There is greater focus on pharmacology, foundation medical sciences, and ocular disease and therapeutics, with clinical training in the final two years of the programme. We’re in a process now of building the two final years of the course.

Business Studies

She says that her students would also be learning the practice management side of optometry, something which might not seem too important to them at the moment, but certainly will later.

“Historically, that’s not been well taught,” she admits. “We’ve now had an opportunity to revisit all of that. If you ask the students, they’d rather spend more time on diseases and things like that. That’s fine now, but they will have to learn the business side for later life and we’ve had a lot of support from the profession in saying ‘look, we can help you with this aspect of the course’.

“So we now do what’s called a Professional Optometry course where we involve the industry, practitioners and other professionals to come and talk about those aspects. Students spend about six hours a week from fourth year to better prepare them for what they will encounter in the real world.

“We are actually setting it up now for a start next year. I think it’s important to also acknowledge what the OAA does with new graduate training once people are out there in the workforce. They do a great job.”

An Evolving Profession

Prof. Stapleton understands that optometry has changed since she entered the profession and that studies need to keep up with these changes. Those changes come in terms of the instrumentation and diagnostic innovations. Certainly, coming from the U.K., seeing how the profession has changed there, and seeing more of a community involvement with the hospitals and the optometrists being more involved in things such as diabetic and glaucoma screening. That’s been a big change.

“Looking at the U.S., the profession seems to have embraced new imaging technology in disease diagnosis, thinking of OCT, GDx, HRT etc; in Australia, the legislative changes and therapeutics have changed the scope of practice; also new technologies and products have changed contact lens practice.

“In the U.K., the community management and well structured co-management of conditions such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy by optometrists has changed optometry.

“It’s very interesting to see models in other countries and how they parallel here…and I do believe Australia stands very tall in the world of optometry. I think this country punches above its weight.

” Prof. Stapleton says that optometry training generally in Australia is undergoing profound changes with the new five-year program at UNSW. Melbourne University is already running a five-year program, but is soon moving towards optometry being a postgraduate degree, analogous to the OD model in the U.S…. and Queensland University of Technology is also moving to a five-year training model.

“The community here can have full confidence in its optometrists,” Prof. Stapleton pronounces confidently.


Asked where she would like to take the course, Prof. Stapleton says: “In the near future I would like to consolidate and develop the five-year program.

We’ve got a lot of work to do. I mentioned one of the courses we are developing, but we’ve got to really enhance and broaden the entire clinical experience which is always a challenge…really giving a lot of thought to external placements and enhancing the experience we provide at the School clinic. We have expanded the preceptorship programme for example, so that students undertake a second regional placement in addition to the established programme. Developing those aspects that haven’t been really locked into place yet…that’s one of my main aims.”

Prof. Stapleton says she’s well aware that there is a “rather poor distribution” of optometrists throughout Australia.

“I think it’s about getting people into regional areas of Australia and here at the school we are doing a few different things to try to address that.

“One of the things is regional practice so that part of your training is to go and do part of your external training in regional areas and we’ve had a lot of support from the profession – the OAA – in this endeavour, and if you look at the data from other fields, there’s a high proportion of people who return to these areas.

“In the university entrance areas, people from regional areas get bonus points in their UAI score, so there are some advantages there.I did a quick whip around of our third year students and we had about eight of our cohort of 45 from regional areas. The University is further supporting regional students with scholarships and there is an expectation that they will go back and practice for some time in the regional areas.

“Also, one of the things that we’ve been looking at is working with the regional medical schools and seeing of there are options of placing students there.

“We also encourage our students to work among the aboriginal communities and do externships in third world countries… it’s a well established part of what we do. We work closely with the International Centre for Eye Care Education, for example, in sending students on overseas placements. The students gain enormously from these opportunities.

“The students themselves are extremely resourceful and innovative. For example, we had an Optometry Giving Sight event in October of last year and the students raised more than eight thousand dollars for that day. I don’t think you can underestimate how community minded and interested these students are. I am very proud of them.

“You need to give people the opportunity to participate and I think that’s one of the exciting things about working in a place like this.”

Another of Prof. Stapleton’s ambitions is to further develop the Optometry School’s own clinic within the university.

“Part of our problem with that is that School Clinic is well hidden on campus and people don’t really know it’s there. It is open to the public. We are an open, retail clinic where the students get their experience.

“About 30 optometrists are within a few kilometres of here so it is a fine line between operating this clinic and not compromising other businesses, however one of our aims over the next 12 months is to build up the clinic and in that regard, we are appointing a clinic manager, with the support of the OAA NSW/ACT, to market and develop the clinic so that it operates as model of real world practice and enhances the clinical teaching experience for the students. We have a large population on campus and we can provide eye care to them.”

The Optometry School also has a great deal to do with local school children, bussing them in to the university clinic for eye check-ups through the Vision Education Centre which has been running for about ten years.

The Vision Education Centre is a vision screening and eye awareness programme for schoolchildren in Sydney. Since its inception, 14,000 children have visited the clinic and been screened. Undergraduate students spend half of the time is spent vision screening and the other half, having a science lesson and learning about the eye.

“Undergraduate students gain exposure to paediatric vision screening, children undergo screening for visual abnormalities and those needing further examination are referred to the clinic at UNSW, children and their parents learn about the eye and vision. Data generated through this programme also provides surveillance on the prevalence of refractive errors in Sydney,” says Prof. Stapleton.

Ocular Imaging

She is particularly proud of a new joint venture between Guide Dogs Australia and the university. Guide Dogs Australia partnering with the university to establish an Ocular Imaging Centre located adjacent to the optometry clinic on campus.

“The Ocular Imaging Centre is a referral centre where people from the community can be referred by eye care practitioners or general practitioners to receive ocular imaging services. It will be state-of-theart and have all the relevant imaging and diagnostic technology, it will be a referral centre for patients needing those services.

“It’s very exciting development in community service, research opportunities and in cross disciplinary education. Students from optometry, medicine and other eye care disciplines will benefit from access to the centre.

Opportunity of a Lifetime

Asked why high school graduates should consider optometry as a profession, Prof. Stapleton is unequivocal.

“I think it’s a fantastic profession. It’s given me enormous satisfaction. You’ve got the opportunity with optometry to go in a variety of different ways including clinical practice, public health, industry, research, education, hospital. Optometry interacts with so many different disciplines. In research, clinical practice drives the research questions and having an optometry background is a great starting point for a research career.

“I think that for the opportunities to collaborate in a multi-disciplinary fashion…it’s optometry. Just the things you get into that you would never imagine…as a profession hopefully people will get great stimulation, ongoing learning and it’s always evolving. For example, there are currently 60 PhD students enrolled at the School doing their research projects in the School, the Institute for Eye Research and Vision CRC. It’s just fantastic.”

And as for the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of New South Wales, Prof. Stapleton is just as unequivocal: “The optometry school here is growing and evolving in terms of all of its output, in terms of student education, in terms of research and also community engagement. We are very ambitious, but we must be ambitious to advance.”

Footnote: Prof. Fiona Stapleton has been awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence – Postgraduate Research Supervision for 2008.

Her achievement will be recognised with the presentation of a medal at the appropriate Graduation Ceremony later this year.


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