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How running in the rain has lifted an eye clinic's fortunes

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ARTHUR CUMMINGS: After his first day working in the South African army’s eye clinic he knew ophthalmology was what he wanted to do, says the partner with the Wellington Eye Clinic. Photo: Tony Gavin

ARTHUR CUMMINGS: After his first day working in the South African army’s eye clinic he knew ophthalmology was what he wanted to do, says the partner with the Wellington Eye Clinic. Photo: Tony Gavin

ARTHUR CUMMINGS: After his first day working in the South African army’s eye clinic he knew ophthalmology was what he wanted to do, says the partner with the Wellington Eye Clinic. Photo: Tony Gavin

Inspiration comes from the most unlikely of places and it was during a stint in the army that Arthur Cummings discovered what he wanted to do with his life. Mr Cummings, who is from South Africa, had just finished his medical internship when he was conscripted into the army. At the time, military service was compulsory in South Africa.

"Army conscription in South Africa was typically straight out of school unless you were studying medicine or dentistry in which case you first completed your studies and then went to the army as a doctor or dentist," said Mr Cummings. "I had completed my studies at 22 years of age, did my internship at 23, and was in the army from the age of 24 to 25."

Mr Cummings spent half his time in urology - the medical practice that treats problems with the 'water works' - when in the army. "A friend said to me that I should try ophthalmology," said Mr Cummings. "I worked in the army's eye clinic for one day and I knew that's what I wanted to do."

Ophthalmology is the branch of medicine which deals with diseases of the eyes.

Mr Cummings, who is now 52, has long said goodbye to his days in the South African army. However, he is still specialising in ophthalmology and is now a partner with The Wellington Eye Clinic, a Dublin practice which specialises in laser eye surgery. Mr Cummings joined the clinic in 1998 shortly after he had moved to Ireland with his family.

The clinic, which was set up almost 35 years ago, recently developed a new procedure for people who need reading glasses. It is the first clinic to offer a procedure (known as Refocus) which treats presbyopia - a condition where the eye struggles to focus on close-up objects - without compromising the distance vision of the individual getting the treatment, according to Mr Cummings. "Any of the other procedures we offer will give you distance and near vision - but at a compromise," he explained. "With Refocus, we don't compromise on distance at all. The distance vision remains perfect."

There is one downside to Refocus however. "Your distance vision must be perfect in both eyes to be eligible for the procedure," said Mr Cummings.

About 1.7 billion people suffer from presbyopia around the world. "Any Irish person over the age of 45 could suffer from this," he said. "Between the age of 42 and 45, people realise that they can't see close up. If they already have glasses, they find they need bifocals; if they have contact lenses; they find they need to wear reading glasses over them."

The demand for laser eye surgery in Ireland has grown considerably since the late 1990s, according to Mr Cummings. "There are now 51,000 patients on the clinic's database," said Mr Cummings. "When I joined in 1998, there were only 3,000 patients and the clinic had done about 800 laser eye procedures. Today it has done 40,000 laser eye procedures."

As the clinic charges €2,000 per eye for a standard laser eye procedure, it's not surprising that the recession took its toll on the practice.

"When the recession struck in 2008, the number of laser procedures we did went down - probably by between 25pc and 30pc," said Mr Cummings. "However, since then, there's been a 2pc or 3pc growth in procedures each year."

So why are more Irish people getting laser eye surgery?

One of the main reasons is that it is more convenient than wearing glasses, particularly if you are active.

"Most people who come in to get laser eye surgery are people who want to stay active - they're runners, golfers, swimmers and so on," said Mr Cummings. "Given the inclement weather we have in Ireland, when it rains, you often can't see a thing if you're out running for example and wearing your glasses. After you have laser done, you can see perfectly if you're out running - or doing any other outdoor sport - and it rains. It's liberating. You don't have to carry glasses around with you all the time - people get tired of doing that. People's confidence shoots up when they get laser as it can have a cosmetic effect. The moment you put on a pair of reading glasses, you are telling the world how old you are."

There is also a financial benefit. "Over 40 years, the cost of buying glasses and contact lenses could add up to between €30,000 and €35,000," said Mr Cummings. "That's opposed to a cost of €2,000 per eye for laser treatment. And modern lasers have the potential to give you the best vision you have ever had."

The fear around laser eye surgery has also dissipated over the years. "People have seen many more of their friends, colleagues and family members get laser done," said Mr Cummings.

Most of those who get laser eye surgery are accountants, eye surgeons and teachers, according to Mr Cummings.

"Accountants want to be cycling and doing things without their glasses after spending their day in front of a computer," said Mr Cummings. "Ophthalmologists have had more laser done than anyone else per head of population."

Mr Cummings expects the demand for laser eye surgery to increase more as the economy gets back on its feet.

"As people start to do the things which give them pleasure again, demand will go up," said Mr Cummings. "We have an ageing population. People in their 70s and 80s are looking at iPads and high-definition TVs and saying that they're not seeing those things as well as they used to. We're more active today than we used to be - and more demanding. We're also more aware of our eyes. People's quality of life has gone up and if poor eyesight is preventing them from living a full life, they will treat that."

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