How to Become an Ophthalmic Technician
What a Technician Gets to See
A career as an ophthalmic technician is a very rewarding one. I spent 18 years as a tech, and I enjoyed every minute of it (well almost).
I enjoyed working directly under an ophthalmologist because I was always learning something new, and that kept me interested in the job. I also enjoyed helping patients feel at ease during exams as well. To me, it felt like I was really making a difference in the patient's experience, and that was very rewarding.
Ophthalmic technicians learn their skills in one of two ways: either through on-the-job training or by taking a two year course at an accredited college.
All of my training was on-the-job, which is the easiest way to gain the knowledge because it is learned through experience. The trick is finding an ophthalmologist willing to train you.
What are an Ophthalmic Technician’s Duties?
Essentially, an ophthalmic technician does the preliminary examination for the doctor, assists him in minor surgical procedures, and answers patient questions along with taking care of the examination equipment and triaging patient emergencies.
Much of the testing a technician performs is highly specialized. For example, the refraction portion of the exam (checking the glasses prescription) can take years to master. But it is the one skill that will take you anywhere. Ophthalmologists are always looking for good refractionists because they are extremely difficult to find. Refracting a patient isn’t just a skill; it’s an art form.
It’s important to remember that salary in this field is based on experience. Entry level positions obviously won’t pay as much as a senior tech position. However, due diligence can help you reach the senior technician level more quickly. I reached senior technician in 2 years, which is all but impossible. The typical time frame to reach this level is 10 years.
Getting Started as an Ophthalmic Technician
Getting your foot in the door is probably the most difficult part of starting your career as an ophthalmic technician. Most larger ophthalmic clinics are too busy to put any considerable amount of time into training someone who has little or no experience.
But it’s not impossible to find one. Call clinics that have technician openings, and ask if they are willing to train someone without any experience. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
I started out working with my family optometrist while I was in college. He taught me the very basics of ocular anatomy and some pre-exam testing. I learned my way around the office and how to properly notate medical records. I also learned how to work with patients, which is the toughest part of the training.
After I left college, I started working for a retinal specialist, which was a much larger clinic. This is where I learned how to check a patient’s vision, read a glasses prescription and accurately check a pressure. I then went on to a much larger clinic where I was taught how to refract a patient for glasses along with everything else I’ve learned.
While it is possible to find a larger clinic that is willing to hire a technician with little or no training, it is much easier to start in a smaller clinic simply because they are not as busy. They will have the time to teach the necessary skills and still be able to answer your questions.
It is preferable to learn the skills in a larger clinic setting, however, because of the variation in patient demographics. Larger clinics have a larger patient volume per day. This means more opportunity for the technician apprentice to see a variety of ocular diseases and injuries.
Certification and Continuing Education
While certification isn’t necessary, it is a wise choice for the novice technician. The Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology, or JCAHPO, offers a home study course that standardizes the skills and techniques technicians must acquire.
Alternatively, a course can be taken at an accredited college. The course is typically two years in length, and the student graduates with an expert level certification.
Certification by JCAHPO guarantees to potential employers that you know at least the basics of being an ophthalmic technician. There are three levels of certification offered by JCAHPO:
- Certified Ophthalmic Assistant, or COA
- Certified Ophthalmic Technician, or COT
- Certified Ophthalmic Medical Technologist, or COMT
Number of Credits for Recertification by Certification Level
Number of CE Credits Required to Recertify
Certification must be renewed every three years and requires continuing education credits. Each level of certification requires a different number of continuing education, or CE, credits in order to be renewed.
Recently, JCAHPO has allowed technicians to use self-study methods to obtain a portion of their CE credits; however, the majority of the credits must be earned through accredited courses. These courses and all certification fees are usually paid for by the physician for whom the technician is employed.
The Ophthalmic Technician as a Career
After initial training and certification, the ophthalmic technician is well on the way to a successful career. The best advice I can give to anyone seeking to make this allied health field into a lucrative and rewarding career is to keep learning.
Develop a mentor-student relationship with the doctor for whom you work. The one doctor I learned the most from was the one to which I was the closest. He took me under his wing and taught me everything I know.
That type of one-on-one learning experience is invaluable in becoming a successful and happy ophthalmic technician. Ask questions, keep learning and your career will never get boring.
© 2012 Melissa Flagg COA OSC