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Demand For Ophthalmic Techs Grows

Ophthalmologists give themselves more time for diagnosis and treatment, they rely heavily on technical staff to conduct research, perform examinations and educate patients. As new technologies and techniques become available, the need for ophthalmic technicians in laboratory and clinical settings will surge, experts predict. "The most noteworthy development is the increased ability for each individual lab to have some very sophisticated equipment and machines located in their own space," said Christina Stevens, at UT Southwestern Medical Center. "In the past, you would have to either go to a core facility and use their equipment or send your samples out for processing."

"Ophthalmic assistants enjoy virtually unlimited job opportunities nationwide and even internationally because of their specialized skills," said Lynn D. Anderson, executive director of the Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology Inc. in St. Paul, Minn.

At academic eye centers, there are two types of ophthalmic technicians. The research tech conducts experiments on laboratory animals to advance understanding of corneal transplantation, infectious diseases and cataract formation. This tech also works with living cells cultured in flasks and test tubes, said Jerry Y. Niederkorn, director of ophthalmic research at UT Southwestern Medical Center. By contrast, a patient-care tech interacts with people visiting the university clinic for eye care and treatment of ocular disorders. This tech measures eye pressure in screening for glaucoma and may apply drops before the doctor performs an exam.

"Both careers are satisfying, yet both are remarkably different," said Dr. Niederkorn. Laboratory technicians need a bachelor's degree in a scientific discipline such as biology, chemistry or microbiology, as well as dexterity and good hand-eye coordination. "They must be able to perform careful measurements and to be able to record observations with great accuracy," Dr. Niederkorn said. "Problem-solving skills are also important."

The demand for laboratory techs is growing due to expansion in biotechnology and new drug developments. Entry-level salaries start at $30,000, and the job offers plenty of independence, responsibility and latitude in designing, performing and interpreting scientific experiments. "The research focuses on finding new cures and treatment for blinding and, sometimes, life-threatening diseases," Dr. Niederkorn said. "The technician can sometimes see the impact of their research in the development of new medications."

Meanwhile, the need for more ophthalmic techs providing patient care hasn't let up. The shortage has persisted for more than a decade in most communities nationwide, Dr. Anderson said. There is demand for an additional 6,000 technicians, she said. Ophthalmologists completing residency training this year will require support from 750 to 1,000 techs, said Dr. Anderson, who has a doctorate in education. Compensation for these techs also begins at $30,000. "With challenges such as workforce shortages, an aging population and technology advances, the need for skilled, competent ophthalmic medical technicians continues to grow, while the number of individuals entering this profession is not growing at the same rate," she said. Employment opportunities for allied health professionals in ophthalmology are expected to increase 36 percent through 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Most ophthalmic practices provide training for entry-level ophthalmic assistants, with senior medical technicians supervising new employees. The training usually includes coursework in the form of independent study or computer-based courses, Dr. Anderson said. A high school diploma is necessary. "The American Academy of Ophthalmology, the Joint Commission on Allied Health in Ophthalmology and the Canadian Ophthalmological Society offer independent study and distance-learning programs to make it convenient for ophthalmic assistants to learn what they need to know," she said.

Many academic institutions also have accredited programs in ophthalmic medical assisting. The training, which can last from three months to four years, entails classroom lecture and hands-on experience with state-of-the-art equipment. In the research setting, "most of the work involved in being an ophthalmic technician requires thorough understanding of math and science and the ability to follow protocols precisely," UT Southwestern's Ms. Stevens said. "Some of the aspects of my particular job, such as corneal transplantation, required months of practice and training in order to complete the surgery successfully. Different types of laboratory equipment demand specific training to learn how to properly use that equipment."

Source: Dallas Morning New, Susan Kreimer, 10/22/7