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HomemifeatureBeyond the Consultation Room

Beyond the Consultation Room

Over the past 30 years, Dr. Peter Herse has travelled the world studying and practicing his chosen profession of optometry. From the wilds of Africa to the hallowed halls of academia in the United States, this Aussie eye health expert is now the Academic Director at the Luxottica Institute of Learning. His job is to promote lifelong learning and professional development for optometrists… and it’s a job he relishes.

These days, global travel for Peter Herse is attending conferences and visiting Luxottica locations around the world. He is very happy living in Sydney with his optometrist wife Siva and their two teenage daughters. And he says he “loves” his role as the Academic Director of Luxottica’s Institute of Learning which takes him all over Australia and New Zealand doing exactly as the title suggests: teaching and mentoring optometrists.

“My role is to promote professional development in optometry. What I do is to promote optometry professional development through workshops, seminars and online distance learning events,” Dr. Herse explains.

“My aim is to make sure optometrists feel engaged and their careers are going somewhere and they’re enjoying their job. Often, optometrists can feel they are stuck in the back room doing their job and they get a little isolated. My job is to create a community where they can talk to each other and work with each other.”

In optometry schools in Australia the undergraduate students are about 80 per cent female. This is a huge shift in optometry from the male dominated profession of the 1970s.

From Toowoomba to Africa

It has been a most circuitous route which has brought Dr. Herse to this point in his life.

Peter Herse graduated from the Queensland Institute of Technology in 1979 and went to work with Trevor Henderson’s Optometrists in Toowoomba and then OPSM in MacKay.

“In 1983 I saw an advertisement in the Optician asking for optometrists to work in Kenya, so I applied and went there.”

For the next year, Peter Herse worked for VM Browse Opticians in the capital Nairobi and also in the town of Nakuru, famous for its large flamingo lake in the scene from the movie ‘Out Of Africa’.

“I was travelling backwards and forwards, seeing lots of wildlife and linked up with charities doing safari optometry. It was very rewarding and I enjoyed it a lot,” says Dr. Herse.

In 1984, after reading the George Orwell novel ‘1984’, he decided to go to South Africa where he was appointed as lecturer in the Department of Optometry in the University of Durban-Westville.

“Because of my time in Kenya, I was interested in working with African and Indian communities in South Africa. Back then, the universities were segregated into white universities, African universities and Indian universities. I didn’t know much about Indian culture so I thought I could learn a lot at the Indian university. I began teaching optometry to mostly Indian students and working with charities for blind people in Natal.” In fact it was during his time here that Peter met Siva, an Indian optometrist and the woman who eventually became his wife.

“Siva was working in Capetown during the anti-apartheid riots and to visit her I had to put a blanket over myself when we drove into the Indian areas. During that time it was all very political and exciting. It was the birth of the modern South Africa and a truly amazing time to witness.”

“We couldn’t marry in South Africa because of the apartheid laws so we left to go to the USA. Our escape route came in the form of the Dean of the College of Optometry of the University of Houston who was visiting South Africa. We met him and applied for scholarships. We were lucky and were offered support. So we went to the University of Houston where I did a PhD and Siva did a OD (Doctor of Optometry) and a MSc (Master of Science).”

After graduating, they moved to New Zealand where Peter lectured in the Department of Optometry University of Auckland. This is also where their two daughters were born.

Back to Australia

Five years later, Peter and his family returned to Australia, settling in Sydney where he took up an appointment as Senior Lecturer at the School of Optometry University of NSW teaching courses in ocular disease, corneal physiology, low vision and other courses.

Apart from his academic appointments, Peter has also held Research Fellow appointments at universities in the USA, India and Thailand. He has a strong interest in low vision, was staff optometrist at Vision Australia Sydney for many years and was a Director of the Macular Degeneration Foundation of Australia.

After 23 years in academia, Peter decided he wanted a change and looked for opportunities in industry. Luxottica offered an exciting challenge to develop a centre for lifelong learning for practicing optometrists. In 2007 Peter started as Academic Director of the Luxottica Institute of Learning (IOL). IOL currently conducts over 70 seminars around Australia and New Zealand and provides an online CPD system. IOL publishes an in-house educational magazine for Luxottica optometrists and runs regular focus groups to explore future trends in optometry. IOL also provides training for Luxottica optometrists who need assistance to pass the Optometry Council of Australia and New Zealand (OCANZ) registration examinations.

“The face-to-face seminars are particularly important as they encourage optometrists to learn about a topic, have a bit of talk with each other and start to feel part of a group which is very useful. We do this for all optometrists because it’s all about making it better for optometrists generally,” he explains proudly.

The Rural Issue

As has been widely reported, there is a shortage of optometrists in regional and rural areas. Dr. Herse believes the best way to get people to go to the country is to promote student rotations into rural and regional locations as part of the undergraduate experience.

“What medicine did was make graduates work in the country for a period of time. Once people experience country life, some will want to stay.”

The problems for eye health in rural Australia and New Zealand are very real, says Dr. Herse. For example, children with eye problems often don’t get picked up by GPs. There’s often no access to eye specialists or hospital eye clinics.

“For farmers and their families, they need access to people who can manage their eyes after farming injuries. Diabetes is often not picked up until late in the condition.

“If you think about Aboriginal communities where diabetes and trachoma are major issues you need a local optometrist who could screen and refer appropriately. Local management is now possible as many optometrists have ocular therapeutic accreditation. Luxottica is very proud to be supporting a scholarship for indigenous communities through a scholarship for indigenous students to study optometry at UNSW.”

“When you get into the conditions of older people such as diabetes, cataracts and macular degeneration, again a local optometrist could manage a lot of this and then refer as necessary.

“Of course the big one is, something severe, like a retinal detachment. If you don’t have access to an optometrist or an eye care professional in a rural area, then there’s a possibility that, without attention, that person may end up going blind.

“There are not enough ophthalmologists in rural areas. The GPs are worked off their feet. I think allied health workers such as optometrists can really provide a lot of primary eyecare services for people in rural and regional areas.”

Dr. Herse is very pleased to be working closely with the Optometrists Association Australia (OAA) NSW Division to promote better eyecare services for rural and regional Australia.

The Future for Optometry

“What I think is going to happen in the next 20 years is that the optometrist will continue to be the expert in refraction, spectacles and contact lenses, but also will become accepted as the primary eye care professional.

“Therapeutics is a large part of it and all graduates now have therapeutics qualifications. Most states of Australia have therapeutic licenses now. An optometrist can give you the most appropriate therapeutic eye drops for the disease, track it and monitor it, and if it’s not working, refer you to a specialist.

“In 20 years I see the optometrist becoming a GP for the eyes as well as providing the best possible vision solutions.

“There will also be certain optometrists who will specialise in different areas. For example; kids’ vision, where specialist optometrists do vision training, or deal with learning difficulties.

“And the bit that I’m really interested in is the ageing population. The number of people with low vision is expected to double in the next 10 to 20 years. Optometry is the ideal profession to help minimise the disability and isolation in the community associated with these conditions.”

Changing Landscape

In optometry schools in Australia the undergraduate students are predominantly female. This is a huge shift in optometry from the male dominated profession of the 1970s and is mirrored in the increasing numbers of females entering all the professions. The student population is also highly culturally diverse.

“The changing immigration policies of Australia have changed optometry: the Greek and Italian migrants of the 1960s, the Chinese and Vietnamese of the 1970s, the Indians of the 1980s and the recent wave of Arabic people.

“What’s happening is an increasing diversity in university entry that is providing graduates who know the needs of the new communities.”

“The new migrant communities are getting services that are relevant and that’s a really healthy thing because the older members of those communities who never had access due to language and educational barriers are now getting the eye care they so desperately need.”