Career profile: Chris Steele

11 July 2018
Summer 2018

How the camaraderie and clinical challenges in hospital optometry inspire this Consultant Optometrist.

Describe your current role…
I am Consultant Optometrist and Head of Optometry at Sunderland Eye Infirmary (SEI), one of the UK’s leading ophthalmic units. Since coming to SEI in 1994, I have developed a wide range of advanced extended clinical roles within my team, who currently take on caseloads such as medical retina, cataract, glaucoma, anterior segment and therapeutic medical contact lens practice. I also work one day a month in a friend’s independent community optometric practice, and write and edit questions for the College of Optometrists’ Therapeutics Common Final Assessment in Independent Prescribing. I have published more than 70 works and have just completed a new textbook, Systemic and ophthalmic management of diabetes mellitus.

What qualifications do you have?
In addition to my BSc in optometry, I have diplomas in ocular conditions, contact lens practice, therapeutics (independent prescribing) and advanced management of diabetes. I am a Fellow of the College of Optometrists and the British Contact Lens Association.

What influenced you to pursue your career path?
I was always drawn towards the clinical rather than commercial aspects of the profession, and the opportunities to forge close working relationships with ophthalmologists and other multidisciplinary healthcare professionals attracted me to the hospital eye service (HES). These collaborations have enabled me to develop a wide range of clinical services, requiring ever-increasing clinical knowledge and skills.

When did you start out on a hospital and research career path?
I graduated from City University, London, in 1988 as a prize winner in ocular disease and abnormalities in my final year. After spending my pre-registration year at the Royal East Sussex Hospital, Hastings, I qualified in July 1989. The following two and a half years were spent working back at City, as well as at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology as a Clinical Research Assistant to the epidemiological African-Caribbean Eye Survey. Following this, I became Head of Optometry Services at Eastbourne District General Hospital, before moving to the North East.

Who inspired you in your career?
Among many others, my own ophthalmic optician, Les Hubbard in High Wycombe, who first examined my eyes when I was 15 and prescribed my first pair of glasses for short sight: he offered me work experience and I was hooked on becoming an optometrist.

Philip Johnson, my pre-reg supervisor at the Royal East Sussex Hospital, Hastings, now the Conquest Hospital, inspired and encouraged me to pursue a career in hospital optometry. He has always been an outstanding mentor and a good friend.

I also greatly admire Dr Cindy Tromans MCOptom, Consultant Optometrist, Manchester Royal Eye Hospital, for her influence on the development of hospital optometry, as well as being a very successful past College president for the profession.

What’s your favourite part of the job?
The camaraderie and support from working within a large ophthalmic teaching hospital. Being part of such a successful multidisciplinary team has enabled me to develop and deliver high standards of clinical care in a number of ophthalmic service pathways.

How do higher qualifications create further career opportunities?
In today’s fast-changing profession, they are essential if you want to get on and successfully pursue opportunities and varied career paths. They certainly helped me, opening up all sorts of opportunities to undertake and develop new clinical extended roles.

What has been key to your success?
I would hope that it was leading my team by example to get the best out of people, endeavouring to be an effective communicator by always being open and listening to others, as well as being effective in implementing and managing change.

What do you feel are the future challenges for career progression within optometry?
What you put into it will largely dictate what you get out of it. One challenge will be breaking down barriers that still exist between different professional groups to ensure optometrists are truly able to widen the scope of their practice as technological changes occur.

What impact do you feel technology will have on optometry in the future?
Greater integration of primary and secondary care with IT communication links will be necessary to cope with the rising pressures of a growing, elderly population. Optometrists will be required to become more clinical in their roles – ever more adaptable and willing to continuously learn new skills, with an emphasis on accurate interpretation of clinical findings. This should be combined with good interpersonal skills in order to work with other healthcare professionals. We should embrace technology and use it to our advantage.

What else do you still want to do?
I enjoy writing, teaching and the clinical aspects of my job. I hope to keep on pursuing projects along these lines both nationally and internationally, perhaps taking on more advisory roles in future. A sabbatical abroad, maybe?

One challenge will be ensuring optometrists are truly able to widen the scope of their practice as technological changes occur

3 top tips for people coming into the profession today
1 Take every opportunity to develop and enhance your clinical skills
I would highly recommend therapeutics and independent prescribing, but it depends where you work, of course.
2 Try to be as dynamic as possible
And as adaptable – expect change and look at it as an opportunity for growth.
3 Regularly set personal challenges
Really push yourself – expect the odd setback, but never give up. You’ll be surprised what you can do if you put your mind to it.

Fast facts: Taking a long view of the healthy work/life balance

What’s the funniest thing a patient has said to you?
A patient told me her genital cataracts were worsening. “Congenital cataracts maybe?” I replied.

What’s your passion outside work?
Long distance (Ironman) triathlon, fell racing, mountain marathons and general mountaineering, both home and abroad.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?
That I have a grown-up son and three grown-up daughters, of whom I am very proud. Yes, I know I don’t look old enough!

What’s the most rewarding aspect of being an optometrist?
Helping people to achieve and maintain the best sight and eye health they can.

What do you wish you’d known when you started out?
How absorbing my career would be at times, and that it’s important to keep a healthy balance between work and play. 

Where would you like to be working in 10 years’ time?
Still at SEI, but still capable of pursuing my passion for endurance sports.

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