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What is an optometrist?

An optometrist is a university-trained health professional whose main job is assessing, diagnosing and treating eye conditions. If your child has eye or vision problems, an optometrist can work out what the problem is and how best to treat it.

Optometrists do special tests and use special equipment to check how well the eyes see, how well they work together and how healthy they are. When optometrists work with children who aren't yet reading, they often try to make the eye check fun.

Optometrists work in either private practices or retail shopping centre practices. They often refer patients to an ophthalmologist for more serious medical conditions or injuries to the eye.

Why your child might see an optometrist

It's a good idea to take your child to see an optometrist if you have a family history of poor vision or notice any of the following.

Eye problems
Your child:

  • has trouble seeing - for example, your child can't see words clearly in a book, complains about seeing double, or closes one eye to see or read better
  • has eye problems like 'lazy' eyes, wandering eyes, frequent blinking or squinting
  • complains of headaches or eye discomfort like blurry vision or watery, itchy, burning eyes
  • seems to be sensitive to light.

School problems
Your child:

  • can't see the whiteboard clearly at school and copies from the student sitting next to her
  • has trouble with homework - for example, your child struggles with it or takes a long time to finish it
  • has trouble reading or loses the place while reading
  • has trouble concentrating or staying 'on task'
  • has messy handwriting
  • avoids activities that need close vision like reading or homework, or those that need distance vision like sport.

Problems in everyday life
Your child:

  • is clumsy - for example, he bumps into things or knocks things over
  • has poor hand-eye coordination
  • holds books very close to his eyes or sits very close to the TV
  • tilts his head noticeably to one side.

Children often don't know they have a vision problem. A regular eye check every two years is a great way to make sure your child's eyes develop properly so she has good vision for life.

If it turns out that your child has some kind of vision impairment, is short-sighted or long-sighted, or has astigmatism, your child might need prescription glasses or contact lenses. Your optometrist will let you know. Sometimes your child might need treatment only for a while - for example, he might need to do eye exercises for a few months.

Most eye problems in children can be prevented or treated if they're picked up early.

You don't need a GP referral to see an optometrist but your GP is always a good place to start if you're worried about your child's health or development. Your GP can also help you decide about seeing an optometrist and help you find someone who's right for your child.

Before going to an optometrist

If your GP refers your child to an optometrist, it's a good idea to talk with your GP about the following things:

  • Why you're going to the optometrist: make sure you understand why your GP thinks your child needs to see an optometrist.
  • Waiting lists: how long before you can get an appointment? You don't usually have to go on a waiting list to see an optometrist.
  • Is there anything can do while you're waiting for the appointment?
  • Costs: many optometrists bulk bill eye tests, which means you can get the full cost of the consultation back from Medicare. Medicare also gives some money back for a full eye examination for patients under 65 years every three years. Medicare doesn't cover the costs of glasses, but private health insurance might. You'll need to talk to your optometrist about the costs of an examination and prescription glasses.

It's a good idea to write down any questions you have - either for the GP or the optometrist - so you don't forget.

When you make an appointment for your child, it's a good idea to make it for a time when your child is more likely to be relaxed and happy, and not frustrated or tired. This could be first thing in the morning or after a day sleep.