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Optometry and optical industry facts & figures

It’s easy to assume the Optical sector is a relatively modern one; however, the first wearable glasses known to history appeared in Italy during the 13th century. Primitive glass-blown lenses were set into wooden or leather frames – and even frames made from animal horn - and then held before the face or perched on the nose.

Today, the sector is worth billions of pounds globally, with many millions benefitting from the continual advances being made in the profession.

In this review, long-time funders of the Optical sector – Braemar Finance – dig a little deeper and share some interesting and not very well-known insights…for example, did you know almost 60% of the population of the UK wears spectacles, among the highest percentages in Europe, and 9% wear contact lenses.


  • Optometrists are eye care professionals who provide primary vision care ranging from sight testing and correction to the diagnosis, treatment and management of vision changes. An optometrist is not a medical doctor and is licensed to practice optometry, which primarily involves performing eye exams and vision tests, prescribing and dispensing corrective lenses, detecting certain eye abnormalities and prescribing medications for certain eye diseases.
  • Dispensing opticians do not test people’s eyesight but advise on and supply spectacles and other visual aids to those who need them after taking account of each patient's visual, lifestyle and vocational needs.
  • Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who specialise in eye and vision care. They differ from optometrists in their levels of training and in what they can diagnose and treat. As a medical doctor who has significant medical training, an ophthalmologist is licensed to practice medicine and surgery; can diagnose and treat all eye diseases; prescribes and fit eyeglasses and contact lenses to correct vision problems.


The European perspective

For the purposes of this report, optical retail outlets specialise in dispensing and fitting eyewear and contact lenses.

At 1.2 optical retail outlets per 10,000 population, the UK placed 18th in Europe in 2020, well behind Cyprus at 2.69 and Greece with 2.33.

The largest number of opticians per 10,000 population can be found in France with approximately 5.55 opticians, closely followed by Bulgaria and Austria with 4.13 and 3.96 opticians; the UK has 1.02.

Opthalmic & Dispensing opticians in the UK

There were approximately 19.7k ophthalmic opticians in employment in the UK in 2020. The numbers have fluctuated between 2010 – 2020, with a peak of around 24k in 2013.

In 2020, there were in the region of 8.7k dispensing opticians, slightly down on 2017’s 9.2k but significantly up on 2014 (4.1k). Northern Ireland bucked the downward trend, with numbers increasing every year from 2009, when there were just 27 compared to the latest data, which states there are 69.

Ophthalmic medical practitioners

The number of ophthalmic medical practitioners in England has suffered a significant decline since 2004, when there were 565, compared to just 193 in 2019. It’s a similar picture in Northern Ireland where there are only four, down from a high of 22 between 2006 and 2011.

While, overall, numbers have declined, since 2011 the gender balance has tipped in favour of women, increasing every subsequent year in both England and Wales.


The number of optometrists per population was highest in Denmark with 5.29 per 10,000 population. This was followed by Italy with 3.64 and Spain with 3.54. It is important to note the Optometry and Optics professions in Spain and the Nordic countries are combined, which explains the high numbers per population.

Number of optometrists

There were just over 14k optometrists in England in 2019, increasing annually since 2004, when there were less than 8k practicing at that time; 55.5% percent of those were female – parity in numbers was reached in 2008 after which the new female entrants gap has increased year on year.

In Northern Ireland, the number of practicing optometrists has generally increased since 2004. In 2019, there were 630 optometrists practicing in NI.

Eye tests

In 2019/20 there were approximately 13.4m eyesight tests conducted in England through the NHS. The number of sight tests carried out by the NHS has increased annually since 2000, when around 9.6m tests were conducted.

Among those aged 0 – 15, the trend has also been a general upward one, peaking in 2014/15 at 2.73m.

In Wales, individuals aged 75 years and over were most likely to have a regular eye test, with 91% saying they had one at least once every two years, while the most common reason individuals give for not having their eyes tested more frequently is that they haven't had eye problems.

In Scotland, the total number of eye examinations also increased between 2006/7 from 1.57m to approximately 2.2m in 2019/20.

Corrective equipment

At 70% of the population, Belgium and Northern Macedonia lead the league table of European spectacle wearers, followed by Switzerland (67.7%) and Norway at 66%; the UK falls just outside the top 10 at eleventh with 59%.

The share of individuals who wear contact lenses only is highest in Sweden and North Macedonia, at 30% each followed by the Netherlands and Cyprus with 25%.

The volume of single focal spectacle lenses sold in the UK has dropped significantly to 2.96m pairs in 2019, down from 8.32m in 2010. 

The sale of corrective glasses has also fallen, from 12.7m units to 7.65m in 2019.

Impact of Covid

Optical services have been severely impacted by Covid-19 with millions of missed appointments during this period, and there can be no doubt the sector will require significant support on its roadmap to recovery. 

Braemar Finance has supported the Optical Profession for many years and will continue to do so during these difficult times.