By Helen Carter
A rural optometrist and his wife have come up with a great way for country practices to attract early career optometrists. Provide financial and mentoring support to students, and in return the students agree to work for you for a few years after they graduate.
Gulf & Ranges Optometrists in Port Augusta on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula offer part scholarships to local students studying health sciences at university including Flinders University’s optometry program. It also offers cash prizes to science students in year 12 at local secondary schools and hosts year 10 and 11 students on work experience.
In return for financial assistance, emotional support and guidance, optometrist Mitch Hancock and his practice manager, wife Tiffany Duncan, ask for recipients of the university health scholarships to return and work in the region for a few years.
The scheme has already paid dividends with the first local student to receive the optometry scholarship, Emma Nutt, returning to her home town of Port Augusta this year soon after graduating, to work as an optometrist at the practice.
Emma graduated from Flinders University in November 2016 with a dual Bachelor of Medical Science (Vision Science) and Master of Optometry and began working as an optometrist at Gulf & Ranges Optometrists in February.
She had worked as a dispenser at the practice during her university breaks and undertook a clinical placement there.
‘My dad and brother wore glasses so they had visited the optometrist a few times but I didn’t really know what optometry was about,’ Emma said. ‘I was always interested in science and physics at school and in year 11 I did work experience at Gulf & Ranges.
‘This confirmed that optometry was what I wanted to do and exposed me to a lot of different parts of optometry. Mitch also guided me on selection of my year 12 subjects.’
David O’Connor Scholarship
At her year 12 graduation, Emma received the practice’s David O’Connor Science Award. The Hancocks had purchased the practice from Mr O’Connor and named the award in his honour because of the many years of service he had given to the local community.
The practice states on its ProVision website: ‘As a small business owner in a rural area it is vital to give back to the community. To maintain quality health services in Port Augusta, Gulf & Ranges has offered scholarships to students going to university to do health science courses.
‘These students receive annual financial support and are then required to come back to the region and work in their field for two to three years. We have, over the last 10 years, provided cash prizes to year 12 students at three local secondary schools who have shown high achievement in science subjects.’
Emma said that for the first four years at university, she returned to Port Augusta in her holidays and worked in the practice dispensing.
‘When interesting cases came in Mitch would call me in and share with me,’ she said. ‘I would see lots of different aspects of optometry. In fourth year, I did a six-week placement at Gulf & Ranges and I knew this was where I wanted to work.
‘They have given me a lot of support over the five years I was at university and a lot of guidance.
‘It was great. The financial support helped with buying books and equipment. The emotional support and guidance also helped me get by being away from my parents for the first two years at university, and living three hours away from home.’
Moving home to practise was made easier by the fact that Emma’s parents and her partner were living in Port Augusta.
‘It’s been good, smooth sailing,’ she said. ‘It’s been busy and every day has been full. I’ve had a lot of help from Mitch and Martin, the other optometrist. It’s great to have a second opinion from another available optometrist.’
Martin Diep gained his optometry degree at the University of New South Wales and also undertook clinical placement at the practice during his studies. Gulf & Ranges had provided him with a scholarship for two years during his studies, before he started working there in 2016.
Since starting work, Emma has returned to study part-time and completed a Specialist Certificate in Managing Paediatric Patients through the University of Melbourne. She hopes this course will widen her knowledge in paediatric optometry and expose her to new and alternative options when managing children.
Emma enjoys the variety that a country practice offers. She handles therapeutic cases and sees many kinds of pathology.
She regularly goes on work trips to remote areas and enjoys getting out of the practice and into the bush. Areas visited include mining towns such as Roxby Downs, three hours drive away, and Coober Pedy, five hours away, and farming towns including Kimba.
Once a fortnight, the three optometrists take it in turns for one optometrist and a dispenser to travel on remote trips for a day or two. They take mobile equipment with them and work out of local health centres in a variety of rural and remote locations including Cleve, Hawker, Peterborough and Orrorroo.
Tiffany Duncan said Emma was the first Flinders graduate they had employed.
‘We started the local scholarships because we wanted to employ local people and encourage them to stay in town and come back,’ she said.
‘We provided her with a part scholarship while in Adelaide and we also asked her parents what else we could do to help, and they were happy for us to help her professionally and emotionally. They were very keen that if she needed extra support, she could call and we would be available.
‘The fact she worked here for seven years as a dispenser is paying off as she understands the front of house business and knows all the front of house staff, understands buying and doing lenses, the information system and the computers.’
The practice takes four to six Flinders University optometry students on clinical placements each year, showing them country life and how interesting working in a country practice is, including working with GPs and travel.