This article covers the role of the optometrist, how they can help your family and what to expect from your visit to the optometrist.

What is an Optometrist?

An optometrist is a health professional who specialises in the area of eye health. Optometrists in New Zealand offer a range of eye services and care for all the family. They are highly trained professionals, skilled in detecting, measuring and diagnosing eye problems and helping treat them through medication, or devices like glasses or contact lenses.

Optometrists work both in private practice and in hospitals and liaise with other health professionals when needed – for example, ophthalmologists who undertake eye surgery.

The role of the optometrist includes:

  • Eye tests
  • Detection and diagnosis of eye and sight problems – for instance short sightedness, glaucoma, macular degeneration, cataracts
  • Treating eye problems with medication or corrective lenses
  • Referring patients with eye disease for more specialist care at a hospital, or with a doctor specialising in problems such as glaucoma
  • Prescribing, providing and fitting contact lenses and prescriptive glasses for short and long sightedness
  • Educating people on good eye care

Optometrists play a special role in eye care for people with conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, to ensure eye health is preserved. The older people become, the higher risk of potential eye problems, so optometrists have an important role with the elderly.

Optometrists can specialise in different areas such as working with children or the elderly, in dispensing glasses or contact lenses, or working with people who are partially sighted.

When should I or my child see an optometrist?

The most common reason a child would need to visit an optometrist is for visual problems. The earlier any vision problems are detected and corrected the better – both for the health of your child’s eyes and also because being able to see well is fundamental to education.

Signs your child may be experiencing visual problems include:
  • Trouble with school work – not seeing the board at front of the class
  • Sitting close to the television
  • Not being able to see things in the distance
  • Sore eyes
  • Rubbing their eyes
  • Slow reading or having to use a finger to guide their reading
  • Closing one eye when reading
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Excessive blinking
The New Zealand Association of Optometrists recommend children have their eyes tested:
  • At 6 – 12 months
  • At 2 – 3 years
  • Before starting primary school
  • Later if they seem to be suffering from sight issues

An eye test every two years is recommended for adults, unless there are other risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure or a family history of eye problems – when visits should be made more frequently. You can expect to pay around $50 for an eye test with an optometrist.

How do I find an optometrist?

Visit www.nzao.co.nz which has an extensive list of optometrists nationwide or phone 0800 4 EYE CARE or 0800 439 322

What will the optometrist do?

Optometrists will perform a series of eye tests looking at how well the eyes focus, how well they track movements, how healthy the eye is and how near and far the eyes can see.

The test will involve:
  • Take a history of any problems with eyes and eyesight
  • Examine general eye health
  • Look into the eye for problems with the retina or lens
  • Measure eye pressure if they think there is a risk of glaucoma
  • Recognise eye disease and know how to best advise you or your child
  • Refer for any specialist treatment you or your child might need
  • Supply contact lenses and glasses
  • Ensure eyes are free of disease and educate you to keep the whole family that way
In adults, optometrists are particularly looking out for:
  • Glaucoma – this is where pressure on the optic nerve can cause loss of peripheral vision and even eventual blindness if not adequately treated. Risk factors include a family member with glaucoma, being over 40, diabetes, high blood pressure, a history of migraines, or use of steroid medication. Glaucoma is insidious and much damage can be done before people realise they have it.
  • Macular degeneration – a problem that can develop as you get older. This can also be insidious in its early stages and may eventually cause blindness. Help protect yourself against macular degeneration with a healthy diet and good vitamin and mineral intake.
  • Cataracts – this is where a cloudiness takes place in the lens in the eye which causes vision to deteriorate.

What can I do to help my eyes?

As a parent you will probably be first to notice potential eye problems.

Problems in children include:
  • Myopia – near sightedness which means you or your child can see objects in the distance very well
  • Hyperopia – long sightedness which means eyes can become tired and sore when trying to do things close up
  • Astigmatism – blurred vision
  • Amblyopia – `lazy eye’- this is where one eye can turn inward or outward. It needs to be treated early – if left untreated after the age of 6 this can become a permanent condition
  • Colour deficiency – means that some colours cannot be seen clearly, affecting 1 in 12 boys and 1 in 200 girls
For good eye health for all the family:
  • Ensure good nutrition – plenty of fruits, green leafy vegetables, fish
  • Avoid a high sugar diet
  • Do not smoke
  • Wear sunglasses outside – and especially in snowy/ bright/ sunny environments
  • Never look directly at the sun
  • Have regular eye checks – especially if there is a family history of eye disease
  • Protect your eyes at home and work to avoid accidents – wear protective goggles when using any machinery
  • Never look directly at welding work being done
  • Ensure your blood pressure is healthy

Low Income Subsidy

Children aged 15 years or under with vision problems in low income families may qualify for a subsidy, via Enable New Zealand, for spectacles. The subsidy includes the provision of examination, lenses, frames, eye patches, and repairs/maintenance. Enable New Zealand manages Ministry of Health funding in the general area of health disability, and can be contacted on 0800 171 981.

Helpful websites & articles relating to optometry:

For information on other Health Professionals and how they can help your child, see our series of Kiwi Families articles on this topic.

www.nzao.co.nz/pdf/Children.pdf

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Paula Skelton is a qualified NZ nurse and midwife, a midwifery & childbirth educator and the mum of three lovely girls.

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