By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun
If there's any time of year that we most appreciate our sight, it's October, when the trees are ablaze with red, orange and gold leaves. That's why this is an appropriate season for Canada to celebrate Eye Health Month.
This month, our country's optometrists actively remind us to have our eyes checked on a regular basis so that they can identify, treat, and often correct, serious ocular health and vision problems before they develop.
Tim Maillet, a third-year student of the University of Waterloo's optometry program and president of the Canadian Association of Optometry Students, says new technologies enable optometrists to detect the most subtle conditions.
While opticians are the folks from whom we buy our glasses, and ophthalmologists are doctors who specialize in treating eye diseases, optometrists are health-care workers who specialize in testing our eyes for sight problems and prescribing exercises or correctional lenses.
This is a profession that attracts people who want to work in a health-care profession that focuses on preventative medicine, according to Dr. Judith Parks, president of the Ontario Association of Optometrists.
"The advantage is that it's a nice environment to work in and the patients are, for the most part, very healthy. You're not usually dealing with life or death situations. And the fact that you can be self-employed and run your own office is an attraction for many people."
Getting qualified, however, is not easy. There is only one school in Canada that has an optometry course for English speakers, and that's at the University of Waterloo. This year, only 70 students from all over Canada were accepted into the program.
To be considered, an applicant needs to already have three or four years of university studies under their belt -- having specialised in sciences or math. Once accepted, four years of really hard work begins.
"The first and second years are tough, because that's when you learn the bulk of the theory," says Tim Maillet, a third-year student and the president of the Canadian Association of Optometry Students.
"In the third year, our clinical practice begins and we're getting more and more excited now that we're given more responsibility."
This is a profession that has always focused on one-on-one contact with clients and extensive testing. But today, the diagnostic equipment more advanced than ever.
Dr. Judith Parks, president of the Ontario Association of Optometrists, says the profession attracts those who are social, enjoy solving problems, are good communicators, and are interested in self-employment.
"I remember how my optometrist tested my eyes when I was young, and I'm amazed today what I'm able to do. Today, we have great technology and cutting edge diagnostic techniques, and we can pick out very subtle conditions effectively," Maillet says.
Amongst those conditions is glaucoma, a group of eye diseases that have few symptoms other than gradual vision loss.
Glaucoma causes little pain, but if it's not diagnosed early enough, it can lead to blindness.
Parks says that because they work with patients most of the day, a good optometrist will be social, enjoy solving problems and be a good communicator.
Most run their own private practice or share an office with other health-care professionals as a way of keeping down overhead costs.
For Tim Maillet, the satisfaction will be in helping people see clearly.
"In paediatrics, I saw the cutest little five-year-old girl. She was having trouble at school so they thought she had a learning disability. But you throw glasses on her face and her face just lit up. She didn't tell her parents or teachers that she couldn't see...but all she needed was a pair of glasses," he says.
For more information, check out www.optom.on.ca
(Reach freelancer Susan Poizner at (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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