My classmates and I undertook a project last semester on the public’s knowledge of the term “Optometry” or “Optometrist”. I already know, by firsthand experience, what kind of answers we will be getting even without documenting it. Nevertheless, it was a great experiment because it opened my classmates’ eyes on how the public sees optometrists, and it allowed us to educate those whom we were able to interview.
Now, I don’t exactly know if being made aware of the perception and knowledge of the public on optometry made my classmates feel good about our profession. Sure, we got a good laugh on their incredulous answers, and we probably made a mental note to do our best to educate the public. But it got me thinking, what are we really doing, intentionally, to educate the public on what is optometry and what is an optometrist? More importantly, if we really want to educate the public, then why are we so scrimpy on referring to ourselves as optometrists? How can we make the term popular (in the Philippines, that is) if even amongst ourselves (not me, I can tell you that!) we’d rather use “eye doctor” than optometrist?
Think about it. Dentists are “teeth doctors”. They wear the “dentist” proud and don’t trifle with terms like “teeth doctor”. Optometrists are eye doctors, yet we don’t use it as if there is something to be ashamed of. Is there?
Perhaps the reason why most optometry students prefer eye doctor is because of the perception of optometrists, in general. But how will we change the perception of optometrists if we don’t use the term and practice clinically, as doctors?
We have observed that the general public equates optometrists (generally) to those who only sell glasses or measure eye power. They don’t see that refraction (and selling glasses), which optometrists are known for, constitute such a small part of primary eye care and clinical optometry.
This public perception on optometry is almost unique in the Philippines. In other countries, optometrists are well-respected doctors. They are equal with ophthalmologists. So why isn’t it so here? I think (and I could be wrong) optometrists have settled for selling and just doing refraction, “labo-linaw” – the very thing the public knows about us. Only a small percentage of optometrists practice clinically. And so, when we tackle the issue of public perception, is it accurate to conclude that it is how it is because it is what most of us have been portraying all along?
What’s my point? We’re still optometry students, and hopefully in a year, we will graduate and become licensed optometrists. Do we want to change the perception of the public and educate them? Then I advocate using the term Optometrist. Make it popular. Wear it proud. More importantly, I advocate practicing clinically, because it is in this area where we truly fulfill being eye doctors. Otherwise, if we stop at selling glasses and refracting under a strict chair time, we perpetuate the perception that optometrists are more salesmen than doctors.
The onus is on us, future optometrists, to elevate the standard and practice of optometry in the Philippines. It is so much easier to just sit back and be indifferent or apathetic towards this reality. This is the curse of the “millennials” – wanting change but not acting on it. My appeal is not so that we will feel better once we’ve educated the public. No, it is so that optometry will survive in the future. If we do not take ownership of our would-be profession, somebody else will. And yes, it starts with the simple act of calling ourselves Optometrists, proudly. That is why.