The technology behind seeing clearly has moved from eyeglasses balanced on the bridge of the nose to using light waves to take cross-section pictures of your retina. Emma Clegg talks to Mike Killpartrick about 40 years as an optometrist
“There was a point when qualified opticians weren’t allowed to have shop windows. It wasn’t seen as professional,” says Mike Killpartrick. Any shop without a visible shopfront seems a novel idea within today’s high street. This professional regulation – while preceding Mike Killpartrick’s business, Ellis and Killpartrick, which has been in Bath for 40 years – shows the dramatic changes in the industry in an optometrist’s lifetime. It also harks back to a time before the big spectacle giants which now dominate the high street.
The idea of the business started when Mike Killpartrick met Brian Ellis at Bradford University when they were studying opthalmic optics, as it was known then. They were good friends and discussed the idea of one day opening up a practice together. This didn’t happen for a few years, but they later developed a business model and started the Bath business in 1979, at first based in George Street. Brian left the business a few years later as he didn’t want to commute to Bath any more, so they parted company amicably and are still good friends, with Brian still doing an occasional clinic.
There have been numerous shifts in the optometrist business model over the years – including the change of name from opthalmic optician to optometrist – but the main difference, explains Mike, is that there has been an increasing emphasis on how the retail part of the business operates. “A lot of what has happened in optics over the past ten years has been driven by the arrival of the large multiple chains… Boots, Specsavers and Vision Express. These companies have huge sums of money behind them and they drove the retail presence that sold glasses.”
This of course made the market very challenging for independent opticians, of whom there are far fewer nowadays. “An awful lot of independent opticians have gone because they couldn’t compete. Those who remain have found what we’ve found, that the model works if you go for the high-quality eyewear and top brands.”
“We adopted the luxury brands in the very early days,” says Mike. “We didn’t know about that world then, because I’m an optometrist not a retailer, but you learn as you go along.” The store’s brands now include Cartier, Chanel, Fendi, Chloé, Gucci, Tiffany, Oliver Peoples and Tom Ford as well as more affordable brands such as Exalto, Oxibis, RayBan and Charles Stone.
“Optics is very strange profession,” says Mike. “We sell glasses and we do health checks, so we’re retailers as well as health care providers.” The business model, however, Mike explains, is sustained by the sale of glasses and contact lenses rather than the health care provision. “The health side of the business isn’t sustainable on its own, but the retailing of glasses makes the whole business work. The spectacles and the contact lenses are the parts of the business that enable me to pay the rent and the rates.”
It’s not just retail that has seen changes from decade to decade, but the understanding of eye health and the associated technology. “It’s a constantly changing field and that’s why it’s so exciting, because there are just so many developments in the technology. Progress has moved more quickly in recent years. At the moment there are big moves forward in the use of the personalised medicine genome. By sequencing some of the eye problems we see through the technology now available, it might soon be possible to detect those who are at risk of macular degeneration by looking at the genome sequence. If we know something about your genes, we can say that you are more at risk of certain things.”
The business also uses a technology called OCT, which screens the retina. “It’s a bit like ultrasound but it uses light instead of sound so it’s giving us more information than we’ve ever had about the retina and its structure.”
One of the services the company offers is checking vision for driving, something about which Mike feels strongly. “The driving test asks for the standard of being able to read a number plate at 20 metres, but that was set in 1937 and has not been changed since. I am involved with a group who want to persuade parliament that looking at a number plate when you are 17 or 18 and reading it isn’t enough. Is it ever tested again? No. It’s checked at 70 but just as a tickbox.”
Mike went up to Portcullis House in Westminster last year with MP Wera Hobhouse and did a presentation on eyesight and driving to Labour MP Jack Dromey (the three-year old granddaughter of one of Jack’s constituents was knocked over and killed by someone who had been told he shouldn’t drive. While the political focus on this issue has been sidelined by the Brexit process, it’s something that Mike believes deserves serious debate and appropriate legislation.
As a council member of the Association of Independent Opticians, Mike works with other independent colleagues to promote the benefits independent opticians can provide, particularly continuity of care. “The large chains find continuity more difficult to manage, although clearly they deliver a service that suits many people.” Independent opticians look to offer more bespoke products and a personalised styling service. “When you meet a spectacle wearer, one of the first things you notice is whether their spectacles suit them and if they fit well. We believe ‘self select’ often results in spectacles that are unflattering and poorly fitting. Our frame stylists can help patients select a frame that really suits them, reflects their personality and character, and crucially fits properly to provide clear vision,” explains Mike.”
If continuity matters to you, Ellis and Killpartrick will make you see it clearly.