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HomemioptometryProfessional Associations as Community Builders

Professional Associations as Community Builders

Optometry Australia is looking at digital opportunities to build community, and to embrace the future of healthcare information systems, as Skye Cappuccio writes.

A member recently commented to me about the value he found in being part of a ‘collective’. This was a timely reminder of the important role of professional associations in building professional communities and fostering a sense of belonging; associations are, at their core, community builders.

With the increasing uptake of digital health, the integration of effective governance and cyber security measures are essential

This function is obvious in the face-to-face education and networking events that state optometry associations host across the country. It also occurs in more subtle ways. Members can feel connected to their professional community by being kept up to date on professional news or when they are united by a shared vision for the future, or a shared fight for change. Likewise, when they reach out for professional guidance and advice, and realise the association has their back, or they join peers supporting the development of standards or guidelines.

Optometry Australia’s new Instagram channel provides another avenue for fostering professional community. Taking inspiration from the now iconic Humans of New York, it fosters connection by showcasing the personal and professional motivations and passions of individual members. We are grateful to those optometrists who have shared their stories and look forward to gaining glimpses into the lives of more members as our presence on Instagram continues to grow. Through this platform, it’s also our intent that people outside of our profession will gain understanding of our community and increase their awareness of eye health issues.

Another approach, our Communities of Practice and Education (COPE) groups, supports deeper intra-professional engagement. Initiated nearly two years ago, Optometry Australia’s COPE groups draw members from across the country together in special interest communities to support one another in building and extending their practise in particular areas. What has been amazing about these communities is how quickly they have evolved beyond our vision for them; both current groups are not only supporting one another to develop skills and strengthen interprofessional relationships, but actively seeking to support peers more broadly with practical resources and chasing broader system change to benefit their patients. Following the success of two initial groups centred on glaucoma management and rural and remote practice, we will be looking to further build the COPE groups offered in 2023–24.

Digital Health and Cyber Security

Changing tack somewhat, we have been encouraged by the recent emphasis on digital health development at a national level. In 2018 we worked with optometrist members across the country to identify a preferred, plausible future for the optometry profession in Australia. We discussed the rapidly advancing pace of technological development and associated opportunities for healthcare.

Many of the developments envisioned have come to fruition and are entering optometry practice today – some are already embedded. However, the transformative promise of a well-connected digital healthcare information system is yet to be realised.

The recent Medicare Taskforce report has re-elevated the national focus on digital health, and in the 2023–24 federal budget we have seen an accompanying investment, focused on building digital health and, significantly, a targeted AU$6.1m investment to increase allied health professionals’ connection to My Health Record. This is significant because at a national level there has, to date, been little prioritisation of allied health connectivity.

Optometry Australia is working hard to ensure this funding is directed at overcoming the barriers for optometrists to easily and efficiently connect with, utilise, and contribute to My Health Record.

The future of digital healthcare within eye care service delivery holds immense promise for our profession. Effective interoperability between optometrists, private and public ophthalmologists, and general practitioners that will facilitate the sharing of pathology reports, e-prescriptions, diagnostic image sharing, discharge reports, and referrals will be pivotal in enhancing system efficiency and facilitating collaborative care models. Critically, it can enhance the care experience for patients, supporting comprehensively-informed decisions and minimising duplication.

While significant opportunities lie ahead, it will also ignite challenges. With the increasing uptake of digital health, the integration of effective governance and cyber security measures are essential. At a global level, striking a balance between innovation and security will be crucial in building trust and confidence in digital eye care services. At a practice level, the need for robust cyber security protocols and effective governance frameworks to protect patient information are critical. In recent years, we have seen an increase in cybercrime and ransomware attacks, with specific targeting of the healthcare system. To support members navigate this space, Optometry Australia recently delivered online and in-person lectures on privacy breaches, cyber resilience, and how to be prepared for ransomware attacks. A cyber security module is planned for later in the year.

The digital healthcare transformation is also highlighting the increasing potential of artificial intelligence (AI). AI-powered diagnostic tools, automated systems for triaging, and data analysis have great potential to enhance diagnostics accuracy and workflow efficiency, and to better understand the optometric services provided to the community. The challenge before the profession is to establish clear guidelines and ethical frameworks to ensure effective and responsible use of AI, while remaining open to the significant potential benefits it can deliver.

Skye Cappuccio is the Chief Executive Officer of Optometry Australia.