Becoming an Ophthalmic Assistant
Table of Contents
Life as an ophthalmic assistant is never dull. If you decide to choose a career in ophthalmology, you’ll enter the exciting, dynamic, and challenging world of healthcare.
Ophthalmic Assistant 101
Put simply, an ophthalmic assistant is a person that works as an assistant to an ophthalmologist. An ophthalmologist is an MD who went through medical school, and ophthalmology is the branch of medicine that deals with eyes, eye diseases, eye health, and the human visual system. In general, ophthalmic assistants work in eye doctor’s offices.
There are two pathways to getting a job as an tech: either you graduate from an accredited training program at a college or university, or you gain experience through on-the-job training. If you decide to enter a training program, you will receive hands-on training. The other advantage is that it may make you more competitive in the job market. On the other hand, when I started working in an ophthalmologist’s office twenty-five years ago, I was completely new to medicine and received all of my training directly through experience. I was fortunate to find an employer willing to invest in my future and in my training. Luckily, there is currently a high demand for fantastic technicians, so it’s a great time to enter the field.
Why I Recommend a Career in Ophthalmic Medical Assisting
The most important thing is that this job is rewarding. Working in healthcare, you have a concrete and acute sense of purpose. You can clearly see (no pun intended) when you're helping people, and you can reap the benefits of that pretty quickly. What's more, because you're working with people's vision, you are very concretely improving your patient's quality of life. Imagine helping someone be able to see their spouse's face more clearly...it's an incredibly special part of the job.
The other great thing about ophthalmic assisting is that there's no nights, weekends, or holidays! It's a rarity in the medical world but one that I loved when I was raising my two children. You can work in a clean, air-conditioned environment and for the most part (also rare for the medical field), you don't have to deal with blood or any mess.
There’s frequently on the job training available as well, so you don’t end up with a lot of student debt. Ophthalmic assisting is a respected profession and if you like to learn there's always further study for you to undertake. Basically: it's hard to get bored.
Ophthalmic Technician Job Description
Ophthalmic assistants are the first point of contact between the patient and the doctor. This means that they have an extremely important role in the patient experience and in providing excellent care to the patient. Ophthalmic assistants play an important role in taking patient histories and introducing patients to the kinds of medical procedures they might need. For this reason, ophthalmic techs must be comfortable answering patient questions and helping them understand clearly what different eye conditions and medical procedures mean.
There are many more specialized and technical skills that assistants are expected to know (or to be able learn). Refraction, or the eye exam that measures the patient’s prescription for glasses, is one of the trickiest but one of the most important. You will also be expected to work with specialized equipment, such as the Goldmann Tonometer.
Ophthalmic Assistant Salary
First things first: salaries can vary across geographical location, and also shift according to things like market demand. For example, people in cities tend to make more than people in rural areas. Likewise, people in areas with a high cost of living will make more than people in areas with a low cost of living.
The great thing about a career in ophthalmology is that there is significant room to grow, particularly if you become certified. According to Salary.com, the median base income of an ophthalmic technician is around $44,000.
A Day in the Life of an Ophthalmic Assistant
Although each day is different, you can generally count on some consistencies. In general, you can expect a constant flow of work, involving shifting gears from one task to the next. For example, if a certain test needs done and you’re the only one that can do it, you may need to handoff a patient to someone else (or you’ll be handed a patient). Often clinics can run behind so managing time and stress is key. This is also why teamwork and camaraderie with your colleagues is so vital - there are definitely days in the clinic that are quite a challenge! Between conducting tests and working up patients, you’ll also have to field questions from front desk about phone calls they receive from patients or how to triage them over the phone.
But there’s also a lot of one-on-one with patients, which can be the most wonderful part of you day. You might spend 15 to 20 minutes in a room alone with the patient and can develop a nice rapport. The longer you work in the same office, the more patients will become familiar.
Working side-by-side with a doctor can be particularly challenging, but it’s also a wonderful opportunity to learn and reflect. In these situations you can also practice ‘scribing,’ which is taking notes for the doctor. You’ll then have to explain the doctor’s instructions to the patient and then catch up with the doctor on the next patient… rinse… repeat!
It’s a dynamic environment. It can be stressful, it can be rewarding, and it is certainly never boring.
Certification and Development
There are many opportunities to grow in your career as an ophthalmic assistant. JCAHPO (Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology) is the organization that governs continuing education and professional certification for ophthalmic medical personnel and they administer a number of exams for people wishing to progress. There are three levels of certification for ophthalmic techs: COA (Certified Ophthalmic Assistant), COT (Certified Ophthalmic Technician), and COMT (Certified Ophthalmic Technologist). Read more about how to become a COA here.
Qualities that Make a Great Ophthalmic Assistant
Patience, compassion and empathy, are key! These are probably the three most important qualities for any ophthalmic assistant to possess. Ophthalmic assistants work with people from all walks of life and from all different cultures. After all, everyone has eyeballs. They also frequently work with the very old and the very young, as these groups are susceptible to eye diseases and need more frequent check-ups with their ophthalmologist.
Here are some other traits that make a great tech:
Attention to detail
Thirst for knowledge
An appropriate level of urgency
Already a Tech?
Have you been working as an ophthalmic assistant, under the guidance of an ophthalmologist, for at least a year of full-time employment? Then it's likely that you're eligible to take the exam for the first level of certification, to become a Certified Ophthalmic Assistant (COA). Certification is administered by the Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology (JCAHPO) and it's the next stage in your career.
I've written an article about the ins-and-outs of the COA exam in an article, which you can find here. Already know you want to get certified? That's great! Eye Tech Training's COA exam prep course is designed to help you through every stage of the exam, so that you nail it on your first try. Click the image below if you're ready to start studying!