Australian Optometry Workforce: How many is enough?

by Andrew Gay

Is the Australian Optometric workforce big enough for the growing population of Australia?

In short: No.

The Department of Immigration has placed Optometry on a list of in demand occupations.

Australia currently has a skills shortage across all sorts of sectors, most notably the resources sector. The mining boom in Western Australia and Queensland has lead to an extreme shortage of skilled and unskilled workers. This is evidenced by the massive inflation of wages for those who work in that sector. This doesn’t just apply to engineers and tradesmen: unskilled workers whose only qualification is a four limbs and a pulse can command AUD$150,000 PA.

Given that there is an overall skills shortage, and an aging population is it surprising that optometry businesses are having difficulty acquiring staff. Clearly these businesses are the one who have influenced the actions of the Immigration Department.

Are Optometrists actually in short supply?

One thing is for certain there is no shortage of optometry businesses. Pop along to the local shopping centre and there will be two or three practices there. The larger centers have more.

What does the research say about workforce levels? Horton et al published The Australian Optometric Workforce (2005) where they looked at workforce supply and demand. They concluded that there were enough Optometrists for the Australian population. As part of their study, Horton et al refined the actual numbers of Optometrists to Equivalent Full Time Optometrists (EFTO). This was more accurate since not all optometrists work full time. They found that the average EFTO performed 8 consultations per day, which equates to 1825 per annum. They also assumed that the average consultation would take 30 mins, but there was also an extra 15 mins of administration associated with each and every consultation. This means that an average optometrist would spend 6 hours per day consulting with clients.

Clearly there is excess capacity in the optometry workforce. However, this excess capacity is probably significantly understated by Horton et al.

In the Horton et al study there is a fundamental incorrect assumption. They state that typical examination takes 45 mins. They have overestimated the consultation time by a 50%. The average consultation in fact takes just 30 mins, so that the average optometrist spends just 4 hour per day performing consultations.

What is the consequence of this? There is a significant shortage of patients. The Australian population would have to double to 40 million in order to soak up all the spare capacity that exists.

The shortage of optometrists can actually be seen as an oversupply of optical businesses. Each business needs an optometrist, but once they have secured one, that optometrist spends half the working day being unproductive.

About the Author: