Award winner Helen Summers shows the way with her vision to be a leading innovator in optometry

The new 2014 year is promising to be a watershed for Helen Summers and her optometry practice in Darwin.  She always wanted to take the path less travelled in her work and saw greater opportunities by opting to become a pioneer and find her niche in a market with fewer services and greater needs.  (Today, AFR, Enterprising Women)

The Northern Territory has delivered with “much more interesting and varied work”, especially with the indigenous community in which some 35 per cent of indigenous adults have never had a eye exam.  Further, 94 per cent of vision loss in indigenous adults is preventable or treatable.  It has always been the big challenge and a big focus for ophthalmologists and optometrists, including RANZCO on whose board I served for a number of years, The Eye Foundation.

Helen has been richly rewarded, personally, for her work. She’s the 2013 Telstra Northern Territory Business Woman of the Year.

Professionally, things are looking even better than ever as her practice has been chosen by the mighty Japanese multi-national, Nikon, to launch Australia’s first Nikon concept store, to deliver its latest optometrical systems.

Another passion is women in optometry – Helen is keen to encourage more of them to follow her lead and go where few others have been!  A little vision has taken her a very long way.

The full story here, as seen in the AFR:

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Not enamoured with the idea of being a successful optometrist in a big city practice, Helen Summers envisioned greater opportunities by being a pioneer and finding her niche in a market with fewer services and greater needs. “I did not think that testing 42-year-olds day-in day-out for their eye-sight would be rewarding,” she surmises. “I needed to create much more interesting and varied work.”

She chose Darwin as her base and after 15 years building her eponymous practice a new era of opportunity has arrived, says Summers, which will put her at the leading edge of innovation using “some of the brightest and best technology in clinical optometry.”

Nikon Corporation of Japan, the multi-national which specialises in optics and imaging products, has chosen Helen Summers Optometrist to launch Australia’s first Nikon concept store delivering their latest optometrical systems in partnership with the French lens company, Essilor. It is due to open in January 2014.

“It has taken 12 months of intense planning with management in Tokyo and Singapore to design the new practice,” says Summers. “This will make me a leading innovator in Australia and it’s great to be in Darwin rather than Sydney or Melbourne.”

Summers says it will make a “big difference” to her practice, which broke through $1million in revenues in 2010. Her practice is one of 180 across Australia under the Eyecare Plus group.

Innovation in clinical optometry is not new to Summers, who was also the first practice in Australia to use Visio-office and Nikon Capture-i software from Europe and Japan, which allows her to work with “extra parameters to dispense new technology lenses.” Further, Summers became the beta-site tester for Australia for ExamWriter, which is an optometry consulting software from the USA.

Arriving in Darwin in 1986, Summers worked for Laubman & Pank for about 10 years while brining up her young family, before launching out on her own in 1998 with a plan to develop therapies for adults and children with reading problems. It was self-funded with no borrowings. Summers installed second-hand equipment sourced from “down south”, while her practice furniture and sinks she bought second-hand in Darwin. “The only thing new, was the carpet,” she laughs.

Her plan was to work part-time but within a year the practice required her full-time effort. She now employs three optometric assistants to support her and another optometrist, and each year she offers six-weeks blocks of work experience for final-year students from the University of NSW and Flinders University in Adelaide. Her practice manager earns a salary above $45,000, while an optometrist could earn up to $120,000 “in a regional or remote area”. Summers pays herself a salary.

The insistence on mentorship for graduates, generally women, is borne of first-hand experience for Summers, who felt dispirited at being an “outsider” early in her career. Upon graduation from Queensland Institute of Technology in 1982, Summers applied for work in large urban practices, only to be told on more than one occasion that “we don’t employ women”.

A resolute country girl, born in Charleville in western Queensland and schooled in Brisbane, Summers says that early work experience only served to galvanise her into action by example, to adopt a more inclusive philosophy and to correct what she describes as “maldistribution” of services to remote areas of Australia.

Eventually she found work, but only as a dispenser recommending glasses to patients rather than consulting, at a Gold Coast practice. Her breakthrough came in 1984 with Walcott & Lanigan, in the regional Queensland town of Ayr, where Summers consulted in the practice and did regional and remote mobile clinics in isolated towns including Bowen and Collinsville. “I was thrown in at the deep end, with no peers to learn from,” she recalls. “It did teach me about practice management and application of my clinical skills to a business.”

Thereafter, a 12-month stint in Kenya only added to Summers’ resolve to focus on markets with greatest need. “I saw the impact of low vision on those communities,” she says. “Unless people can see to read, they can’t get an education, nor opportunities to work and therefore the cycle of poverty is destined to continue.”

In Australia, Summers claims, 94% of vision loss is preventable or treatable in indigenous adults and 35% of them have never had an eye examination. She is a signatory to the “Close The Gap for Vision” initiative of the Federal Government, whose goal is to reduce avoidable blindness and improve vision care.

Nearly every week Summers, or one of her staff, holds clinics in Katherine, Jabiru, Adelaide River, Yirrkala, Arnhem Land and Nhulunbuy.

Summers also was one of the first private practices in Australia to become a “designated optical provider” to the Department of Defence, a contract which delivered about 12% of overall revenues to her business. However she lost the contract in 2012 due to changed tendering arrangements.

Ever the innovator, Summers introduced extra therapies to replace the lost revenue, including colourimetry which is precision tinting for children and adults with reading difficulties and visual stress, sometimes associated with dyslexia, or the use of electronic games and computers. As well, she took over management of two Fred Hollows clinics in Batchelor and Adelaide River, and says revenues for the past financial year increased as a result.

Future goals are to win the Defence contract again, but on the community side she wants to mentor more women in optometry: “We have seen more female graduates than men in the past five to 10 years, but we need more of them in regional areas,” she says. “You can have a family and it is a great profession to be employed or have your own practice.” She and her husband Iain, a lawyer and accountant, have three children, 23, 21 and 17.

Fortuitously, her husband also shares Summers’ passion for work in isolated communities and her goal to add her weight to “Close The Gap for Vision”: “It is always about delivering vision care to enable people to read – that leads to education, employment and therefore a better quality of life.”

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