From new graduate to the highest office in the profession in the space of 11 years, Queensland’s Kate Gifford has become Optometry Australia’s 41st but only the second female National President.
The national board elected Kate as president on 21 November, succeeding Andrew Harris who has completed his second three-year term (2007-2010, 2011-2014).
Kate (nee Johnson) is the sole practice owner of Gerry & Johnson Optometrists in Brisbane’s CBD and has speciality interests in contact lenses, binocular vision, paediatrics and myopia control.
She graduated from Queensland University of Technology in 2003 with first class honours and a University Medal.
Kate joined the practice formerly known as Patrick Gerry Optometrists in 2005, completed QUT’s Graduate Certificate of Ocular Therapeutics in 2006, and took over the practice in July 2007.
Her path from secondary school to business owner was swift.
‘I read my first Australian Optometry newspaper in 1999, in Henry Heron’s optometry practice in Toowoomba, on a day of work experience,’ Kate said.
‘In Grade 12 at the time, I was unsure whether I wanted to be an optometrist or a lawyer. I had limited experience of optometry. Having been emmetropic throughout childhood, my first eye exam was at age 16 where I complained myself into a pair of +0.50s for schoolwork.
‘The inimitable Henry was OAA Queensland and Northern Territory Division president at that time, and on that day he inspired me to study optometry and to become involved in professional leadership,’ she said.
Involved at a state board level early in her career, Kate became a director of Optometry Queensland/Northern Territory in 2005 and was elected vice president in 2009, before becoming president for a two-year term from 2010 to 2012.
She joined the Optometry Australia national board as a director in 2010 and was elected national vice president in 2013.
‘In 2003, as a final-year optometry student, I became the Division’s first student observer after Greg Johnson, then CEO, presented to our class group. I approached Greg and was invited to observe board meetings, which established collaboration between optometry students and our Division that exists to this day.
‘I was elected to the Queensland and Northern Territory board in 2005, becoming state president and national board director in late 2010, and as my involvement continued I’ve enjoyed it all the more,’ Kate said.
‘The national board is a dynamic, strategic and collegiate group, with strong governance skills and an understanding of our responsibility for use of the organisation’s resources and its outcomes.
‘Board meetings are informative and stimulating, and under Andrew Harris’s accomplished chairing our sum performance is always greater than our parts. Our national CEO Genevieve Quilty and her staff are across every facet of an issue at warp speed,’ she said.
‘If I had to choose one word for why I have stood for president, it would be education. Our profession needs clinical and commercial education to evolve, and an active discussion about collegiality around our shared goals and needs.
‘Our organisation needs to continually educate individual optometrists on our activities and our impact to demonstrate our value through communication across multiple channels.
‘I am passionate about Optometry Australia and the state Divisions continuing to provide and augment these services, while also engaging in ongoing education of government, stakeholders and the public on optometry’s place in the primary health-care system,’ she said.
Professionally, Kate’s passion extends beyond the boardroom.
She joined the American Academy of Optometry Fellowship Admissions Committee (International) in 2012, adding to her professional affiliations that include Fellowships of the American Academy of Optometry, the British Contact Lens Association, the Contact Lens Society of Australia and the International Association of Contact Lens Educators.
Kate is undertaking a part-time PhD, examining binocular vision function in orthokeratology contact lens wear.
That’s not all.
‘In my downtime I’m a mediocre runner, voracious reader, intrepid paleo chef and fledgling blogger,’ she said.
‘I’m likely to be the slowest of the Brisbane Running Buddies, with whom my husband Paul and I run and drink coffee twice a week, but they are a diverse and incredibly supportive group of happy people who inspired me to complete my first marathon last year in Berlin.
‘The second highlight of my running achievements so far was coming 41st out of over 200 in my age group at the Brisbane 10-kilometre event in August. Forty-first! I was thrilled and surprised. I would never accept that in academic pursuits but when it comes to athletics, I’m easy to please.
‘I have a pile of business, science and optometry magazines and a novel or two on the go. I’m also frequently found texting, tutoring, Facetiming and bookclubbing with my teenage step kids who live in Sydney, and being fascinated by the societal, educational and commercial influence of social media,’ she said.
In her day-to-day clinical practice, Kate finds personal reward in patient education, chatting to patients who have become friends over 10 years, and seeing her staff enjoy their work and their achievements.
‘I enjoy solving clinical puzzles and delivering best practice clinical care to each of my patients.’
‘Seven and a half years of small business ownership has taught me that we must constantly innovate and demonstrate value to our patients, even if they are incredibly loyal.
‘There’s a balance to be struck between working on and working in your practice, and as my optometrist husband Paul is now heavily involved in both, I’m really enjoying the business development side of day-to-day practice with him,’ she said.
Kate’s diverse professional involvement has helped prepare her for the rigors of the boardroom.
‘I enjoy being involved in a professional smorgasbord of activities and believe that my diverse professional experience informs my understanding of nearly every facet of optometry—clinical, academic, research, professional education and business ownership,’ she said.
‘In 2013, I became a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors through successful completion of its rigorous Company Directors Course, which augmented my board experience with detailed knowledge of the roles and responsibilities of a director, strategy, risk, financial analysis and board dynamics.
‘I have since undertaken short courses on not-for-profit governance and board leadership, and have really enjoyed the interaction afforded with people in similar organisations,’ she said.
Walking in the footsteps of Helen Robbins, 15 years after she broke through the proverbial glass ceiling to become the organisation’s first female president (1999-2002), Kate considers her gender an asset.
‘I’m on the cusp of Generation X and Y and believe I bring an understanding of our changing membership demographics and drivers. I am fascinated by the potency of social media and hope to utilise its ubiquity to be an extremely relatable leader.
‘While my age and gender have been immaterial in my involvement with the national board, and I am enormously proud to have been a part of what we have achieved over the past four years, I hope I am a signal to our membership of the evolving, collegiate and communicative organisation that Optometry Australia aims to be,’ she said.
Kate is an award-winning clinical supervisor and visiting lecturer at QUT, has written 21 peer reviewed and professional publications, and presented more than 50 lectures at conferences in Australia, New Zealand, England and the USA.
Despite excelling on the academic stage, Kate is still humbled to meet those she admires.
‘Attending and then lecturing at international conferences has afforded me the opportunity to meet and become friends with my academic heroes. I really felt like I’d made it and was never so nervous as when I shared the stage at the British Contact Lens Association conference in June this year with Dr Noel Brennan and Professor Bruce Evans,’ she said.
‘Noel is a noted Australian researcher best known for his research on oxygen flux, now the Global Platform Lead for Myopia Control with Johnson & Johnson in the USA. We presented on myopia to a packed house where people were being turned away at the door—nerdy exhilaration!
‘Professor Bruce Evans is an English optometrist who literally wrote the textbook on binocular vision—Pickwell’s Binocular Vision Anomalies—and maintains a diverse portfolio of activities including clinician and independent practice owner, researcher, educator and author.
‘I have clinical heroes who inspired me and got me started in my practising career; business heroes in the Australian Optometric Panel group and several other UK-based optometrists who keep innovating and stay passionate about their practices; and opto-political heroes who are currently and were previously involved with Optometry Australia.
‘I’ve been lucky enough to work with and learn much from all of them.’