Becoming an Ophthalmic Assistant: Job Description & Salary Info

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Most ophthalmic assistants earn $21,000-$50,000 a year. Is that a good return on the training required? Read on for real job descriptions and get the truth about the career outlook to see if becoming an ophthalmic assistant is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming an Ophthalmic Assistant

Ophthalmic assistants make sure that an ophthalmologist's day runs smoothly by taking medical histories, testing patients' eyes and scheduling appointments. Examine the following pros and cons to determine whether a career as an ophthalmic assistant is right for you.

Pros of an Ophthalmic Assistant Career
Medical assisting is one of the fastest-growing professions, with 29% growth expected for 2012-2022*
Minimal training or education needed (typically less than one year)*
Additional education, training or certification provide some advancement potential**
Predictable hours*

Cons of an Ophthalmic Assistant Career
Medical assistant salaries are in bottom half of salaries for healthcare support professionals (ninth out of 16)*
No opportunities for self-employment*
Further education and certifications needed to move ahead**
Some positions may require evening or weekend hours***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology,***I Have a Plan - Iowa.

Job Description and Salary Info

Ophthalmic assistants work under the supervision of an ophthalmologist. They perform a range of tasks for patients who need help with their vision, have eye injuries or suffer from eye diseases.

According to the Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology (JCAHPO), an ophthalmic assistant's clinical duties include taking a patient's medical history, measuring ocular pressure and acuity, and testing and comparing pupils (www.jcahpo.org). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that ophthalmic assistants administer eye drops and medications, instruct patients about surgery and post-operative care, take care of instruments and equipment, apply dressings and teach patients about contact lens care (www.bls.gov).

Earning Potential

In 2014, the BLS reported a mean annual salary of around $31,000 for all medical assistants, including ophthalmology assistants. In December 2014, Payscale.com reported that ophthalmology assistants earned between $21,000 and $50,000 at that time.

Education and Training Requirements

While a high school diploma is the minimum requirement for a career as a medical assistant, you have other education options that specifically train you to become an ophthalmic assistant. For instance, one year post-high school formal training programs are available. The Commission on Accreditation of Ophthalmic Medical Programs (CoA-OMP) accredits ophthalmology assistant programs (www.coa-omp.org). The curricula for these certificate or diploma programs vary, but in most you learn about ocular anatomy, medical terminology, diagnostic procedures, contact lenses, psychology, CPR and clinical procedures. You might also participate in a clinical experience in some programs.

A self-directed training program is another option. The JCAHPO and the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) both offer self-study materials as a stand-alone option or as a supplement to existing training or experience (www.aao.org).

Job Postings from Real Employers

Qualities sought by employers vary, but certification and experience are commonly required. Examples of job postings found in February 2012 are:

  • A medical assistant/ophthalmic technician job was available at a New England retinal specialist office with physicians who traveled locally to cover several clinic locations. The employer was seeking someone with three years of retina experience.
  • An Arizona ophthalmology office located in a large community of retired persons was looking for a highly-experienced certified technician or assistant. The office sought an individual with ability to perform visual field/OCT (optical coherence tomography)/intraocular lens (IOL) master/corneal topography testing.
  • An ophthalmic assistant job at a clinic in Spokane, WA, required that applicants have only a high school diploma, but also that they be certified. This clinic's position combined receptionist and assistant duties.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Optional certification may make you stand out from other ophthalmic assistants. The Certified Ophthalmic Assistant (COA) credential is offered by the JCAHPO. If you've completed a formal, accredited clinical training program within the past year, you are eligible to take the certification exam. If you have completed a non-clinical training or self-study program, you need work experience - 500 hours or 1,000 hours, respectively - to be eligible for the test. Extra self-study credits can fill the gap for eligibility if more than 12 months have passed since you finished a training program.

Is Certification Worthwhile?

If bumping up your salary is of interest to you, you may want to consider becoming certified. Payscale.com's statistics for Certified Ophthalmic Assistants show that the 10th-90th percentile range for salaries for COAs was about $25,000-$45,000 in early 2012. This is approximately $5,000 more at both ends of the range than earnings of non-certified assistants.

Other Careers to Consider

If you've developed skills and gained experience as an ophthalmic assistant, you probably have many of the office and patient-care abilities needed to work as a medical assistant in other types of medical offices. Alternatively, if you really enjoy ophthalmology but want to move on from assisting, you might consider working as either an ophthalmic technician or ophthalmic technologist.

Medical Assistant

Although you may find that your magic touch with eye drops doesn't transfer, many of your other ophthalmic assistant skills, including performing administrative tasks, interacting with patients and having clinical responsibilities, can be used in a general medical practice. On-the-job training might be sufficient to fill in any gaps between what you did in an ophthalmology office and skills necessary to assist in another type of medical office. Certifications are also available in general medical assisting. The BLS reported an average salary of $29,760 for the medical assistant group as a whole in 2010.

Ophthalmic Technician

According to the JCAHPO, technicians typically complete 1-2 years of formal education to qualify for additional responsibilities that take them outside the realm of assisting. Technicians are trained to use ultrasound or intermediate tonometry, and also might supervise assistants. Voluntary certification as a Certified Ophthalmic Technician (COT) is available and may open the door to better opportunities and earnings. Payscale.com showed that, in 2012, most COTs earned between $28,000 and $53,000.

Ophthalmic Technologist

Technologists complete more than two years of training and have similar responsibilities to COTs, but are also given more latitude in clinical decisions. Earning a voluntary certification can boost your earning and job position potential in this career. In early 2012, Payscale.com reported that Certified Ophthalmic Medical Technologists (COMTs) earned between $30,000-$57,000 a year.

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The George Washington University

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American University

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The University of Scranton

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