Flying optometrist eyes retirement as ageing population sees demand soar

A flying optometrist, who has spent more than three decades treating patients across western Queensland, fears eye diseases will go untreated once he calls it quits.

Key points:

  • An ageing population means the demand for optometry services have never been higher
  • Detecting eye diseases like macular degeneration and diabetes early is critical to saving sight
  • Without an optometrist in western Queensland, treatable eye conditions could be left undiagnosed

Geoffrey Fitzpatrick, 71, is approaching retirement after clocking up enough air miles to fly to the moon and back.

Mr Fitzpatrick has been flying back and forth from the Sunshine Coast to the state’s central-west since 1988.

But with an ageing population and a lack of optometry services in the outback, he was worried vulnerable people could be left in the dark.

“I feel obliged to keep providing the service,” Mr Fitzpatrick said.

“There used to be three or four, or even five, other optometrists travelling around out here. Now I’m the only one.

Born to fly

As the son of an RAAF World War II pilot, Mr Fitzpatrick always wanted to fly.

A man looking inside of a white light aircraft

Mr Fitzpatrick stores his plane at local airports while he visits patients in town.(ABC Western Queensland: Craig Fitzsimmons)

He earned his pilot licence in 1983 and said, apart from the addition of GPS, not much had changed in the air since.

But Mr Fitzpatrick’s optometry practice, and Longreach itself, had been transformed over the years thanks to advances in technology and the conveniences of modern life.

“We’ve got three computers doing different jobs, we’ve got retinal cameras, we’ve got auto refractors and visual field screen machines that can detect the early signs of glaucoma,” he said.

A wood box with lens options in an optometry practice.

Traditional optometry methods are still used alongside modern technology.(ABC Western Queensland: Craig Fitzsimmons)

Knock-on effects for community

Longreach stalwart Mary Bell has known Mr Fitzpatrick for more than 30 years.

The Meals on Wheels and Vinnies volunteer is being treated for macular degeneration.

A lady have her eyes looked at closely

Mr Fitzpatrick assesses Mary Bell’s eyes, as he has done for the past 30 years.(ABC Western Queensland: Craig Fitzsimmons)

In April, non-urgent clinical services including ophthalmology were suspended after directions from National Cabinet due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ophthalmology specialists are due to return to the Central West Hospital and Health Service in November.

In the meantime, Ms Bell had been forced to travel to Brisbane for specialist treatment and was worried that may become the new normal.

“Well, you either have to go away or your eyes would deteriorate — that’s about it,” she said.

Services like optometry were privately funded, but for Mr Fitzpatrick his time in the west was not about the bottom line.

“I must say it’s not particularly lucrative — it’s taken me 30 years to actually own an aeroplane,” he said.

A man pulling suitcases out of a light plane

Mr Fitzpatrick unloads the specialist optometry equipment from his plane.(ABC Western Queensland: Craig Fitzsimmons)

Early detection critical to save sight

An ageing population and harsh UV light in the outback means the need for routine eye check-ups is essential.

Detecting eye diseases early, like macular degeneration and diabetes, is critical to saving sight.

But travelling hundreds of kilometres for appointments is not practical for many in the community.

Former president of the Rural Doctors Association Queensland Clare Walker warned that, without the specialised skills of an optometrist in the region, treatable eye conditions could go undiagnosed.

A lady pushes her son on a swing in front of a playground

Clare Walker and her family rely on the optometry service Mr Fitzpatrick delivers.(ABC Western Queensland: Craig Fitzsimmons)

“If you catch bleeding from diabetic complications early you can retain vision by treating it,” Dr Walker said.

“Without that early detection some people go needlessly blind from diabetes.

Mr Fitzpatrick had observed the demand increase during his career.

Originally he visited Longreach six times a year, then eight, and now he is makes 12 trips a year to meet the needs of his patients.

“When I graduated we hardly saw anybody over 80 years old,” Mr Fitzpatrick said.

“Now we’re seeing lots of patients well over 80 and quite a few in their 90s — some of them are quite healthy of course, but some of them aren’t.

A lady in a red shirt having her eyes examined

Mr Fitzpatrick sees more elderly people than 30 years ago and says they are the most susceptible to eye conditions.(ABC Western Queensland: Craig Fitzsimmons)

“People over 80 are more prone to having macular degeneration, which is becoming a serious problem.

“It gets difficult for them to look after themselves, so that’s one of the things we make an effort to detect early.”

Mr Fitzpatrick hoped someone will take up the cause once he has gone.

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