Why optometrist Bianca Romeo started her career in Alice Springs

After graduating from the Master of Optometry program at QUT in 2022, Bianca Romeo started her career in Alice Springs. It’s a unique challenge already providing a host of rich experiences, just months into the role.

Moving to one of the most isolated parts of Australia where health resources are scarce and one’s clinical skills are tested daily might seem like a tough way to begin an optometry career, but for Ms Bianca Romeo it made perfect sense. 

“I have always wanted to work in a regional/remote community upon graduating, and through my EssilorLuxottica Cadetship, the opportunity to work in Alice Springs popped up and it sounded like a good challenge. It would also allow me to provide a much-needed service in an area that is incredibly isolated from the rest of Australia,” she explains.

“These areas really struggle to find healthcare workers who will stay on a permanent basis, and establishing a connection within the community is important for building rapport and ensuring that patients feel comfortable returning for follow up care, knowing they are going to be seeing the same optometrist.”

Today, Romeo is the only full time optometrist within Alice Springs OPSM store. She’s mentored by the practice’s part-time optometrist, Ms Emily Procopis, who has been in there since 2006.

Bianca Romeo has enjoyed getting out to see the different sights with her partner who also moved to Alice Springs.

While many graduates seek the security of a metropolitan job, or one close to their family, Romeo’s attraction to a regional and remote career perhaps has origins to her childhood. Born in rural South Australia (Berri), she grew up in regional Queensland (Withcott and Toowoomba) before relocating to Brisbane to study optometry.

Her first introduction to the EssilorLuxottica network came during her second year of study at OPSM Fairfield Gardens. She was awarded a cadetship in 2021, which provided opportunities to work in regional and remote areas of Australia and New Zealand with EssilorLuxottica upon graduating.

This took her to Alice Springs in 2023. Here, she has found some similarities to her experience in Brisbane: testing vision, prescribing spectacles and diagnosing and treating eye disease. However, a notable difference is fewer resources available to patients. 

“As such, I am exposed to a lot more diabetic patients with more severe diabetic changes, as well as more opaque corneas from injury or trichiasis. Challenges include testing patients who do not speak English, as well as knowing what should be referred to ophthalmology and what should be monitored in an optometry setting,” Romeo explains.

“As our only local ophthalmology services are public services, I have to consider the urgency of referral and likelihood of treatment and intervention more carefully than I would in a metro setting. I have enjoyed this challenge, and really appreciate the opportunity it provides for me to enhance my clinical decision making and diagnostic capabilities, as well as adapting my testing style for non-verbal patients or patients who do not speak English.”

Procopis, her mentor, has played a major role in educating Romeo about what services are available in Alice Springs, including what ophthalmology services can be provided locally at the Alice Springs Hospital, and those that need to be referred elsewhere, such as Adelaide. 

“She has also encouraged and supported me reaching out to other local optometrists for advice,” Romeo adds.

Beyond the consulting room, she is having an impact through outreach clinics. Before becoming a qualified optometrist, as part of an optometry student placement in 2022, she travelled to Cooktown, Hopevale and Coen in Queensland with the OneSight EssilorLuxottica Foundation to provide screenings and glasses where needed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school children.

Through this work she was introduced to Mr Wayne Tennent, who heads OneSight across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. This connection served her well upon moving to Alice Springs. 

Tennent facilitated a key meeting with Dr Tim Henderson, the ophthalmologist at the Alice Springs Hospital. Recently, Romeo accompanied Henderson – as well as his support staff, a registrar, orthoptist and Aboriginal liaison officer – on an ophthalmology trip to Docker River. 

OneSight EssilorLuxottica Foundation’s Wayne Tennent (from left), Bianca Romeo, Alice Springs ophthalmologist Dr Tim Henderson, registrar Dr Ella Berry, principal optometrist Lina Li and eye Aboriginal liaison officer Veronica Stafford.

“Dr Tim Henderson and the Alice Springs Hospital provide ophthalmology clinics for patients in remote communities, which is incredibly beneficial as it allows patients to receive necessary eyecare without having to travel to the hospital, which for Docker River is a seven-hour drive away,” she says.

“He can provide thorough eye examinations, deliver treatments to patients, and identify any patients who will require further assessment at the Alice Springs Hospital in the future.”

Something that stood out to Romeo was the relationships and trust staff at the community health centre had built with patients in Docker River. In fact, they pick up patients who are due to see Henderson, because the majority wouldn’t attend their appointment otherwise. 

“This really highlighted how important it is that the hospital and Dr Henderson provide services locally to these patients, as it improves attendance at appointments and subsequently improves their eye health outcomes. These patients are less likely to be able to attend appointments that are held at the hospital seven hours away,” she says.

“I find outreach clinics incredibly rewarding, as I know I am truly making a difference when providing these services. It really does open your eyes to the gaps in healthcare in remote areas and having that exposure encourages you to continue to participate in further clinics. I am very grateful to OneSight for providing me with these eye-opening opportunities, and look forward to attending clinics with them in the future.” 

The article originally appeared on Insight.

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